The Doolittles' Rich Deal

Friday, April 21, 2006

IMAGINE THAT every time members of Congress received a $1,000 campaign contribution, they could skim $150 off the top and put it straight into their personal bank accounts. Sound shady? That is, in effect, how Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) and his wife, Julie, operate. According to our review of campaign finance records, Mrs. Doolittle has received at least $215,000 from Mr. Doolittle's various campaign committees since 2001. This doesn't include $6,800 in payments to another of Mrs. Doolittle's companies, Events Plus, before she started doing his fundraising work. She's taken in nearly $100,000 during the 2006 campaign alone.

The arrangement couldn't smell more.

Mrs. Doolittle's company, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions, is based in the couple's Oakton home. It has no phone listing or Web site. A search of campaign databases does not show it doing fundraising work for campaign committees other than those associated with Mr. Doolittle. The only other clients it's reported to have done work for are associated with lobbyist Jack Abramoff: Mrs. Doolittle was hired by Mr. Abramoff's former law firm, Greenberg Traurig, to provide "event planning, marketing and related services" for Mr. Abramoff's Capital Athletic Foundation and his Signatures restaurant. Mrs. Doolittle also provided bookkeeping services for the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, founded by Edwin A. Buckham, former chief of staff to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

A good chunk of the money she is credited with raising for her husband came from defense contractor Brent Wilkes. You may recall that former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) admitted taking bribes from Mr. Wilkes in exchange for help in obtaining federal contracts. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, between 2002 and 2005 Mr. Wilkes, associates and lobbyists contributed $118,000 to Mr. Doolittle's political committees; the newspaper said its calculations showed that Mrs. Doolittle received at least $14,400 of that money in commissions. Mr. Doolittle helped Mr. Wilkes obtain $37 million in federal contracts.

Mr. Doolittle's office defends the commission arrangement, saying that he wanted to ensure his wife "was not accused of receiving payments without generating results -- a charge that has been frequently leveled against members of Congress whose family members receive a salary instead of a commission." If so, Mr. Doolittle created one appearance problem in his effort to solve another. True, some campaign fundraisers operate on a commission basis, and 15 percent is a standard fee. But the practice of taking commissions is increasingly disfavored. The Association of Fundraising Professionals' code of ethics prohibits such arrangements.

We've been reluctant to criticize congressional spouses whose related careers -- as lobbyists or campaign consultants, for example -- predate their marriages. Mrs. Doolittle does not appear to present such a case. Mr. Doolittle points to a 2001 Federal Election Commission advisory opinion that permitted the wife of Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) to be hired as a Jackson campaign consultant. In that case, though, Sandi Jackson had extensive political experience and a written contract with her husband's campaign. Asked if Mrs. Doolittle has a contract, a representative of her husband's office declined to answer specific questions. Similarly, Mr. Doolittle's office says he's been told by the House ethics committee that his arrangement is permissible, but his office did not provide any documentation.

Putting family members on the campaign payroll is questionable. Letting them -- and by extension, the candidate -- take a piece of the contribution action ought to be completely out of bounds.

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