Senators Diverting Campaign Funds to Kin
Sunday, February 24, 2008
Under long-standing congressional ethics rules, corporations, unions and other large organizations cannot directly pay senators stipends. But their contributions to senators' election campaigns can be paid without limit to the children, spouses, in-laws and other relatives of the lawmakers, in a practice that has aroused controversy but is fully legal.
Since 2000, at least 20 members of the Senate dipped into their campaign contributions and wrote more than half a million dollars in checks to their own relatives, typically as payment for fundraising and other campaign work, according to a new report by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), for example, paid her son Douglas $320,409.17 in campaign donations through his company Douglas Boxer and Associates from 2001 to 2006, CREW found. Douglas Boxer is a lawyer and a 10-year veteran of her political team, a Boxer spokesman said.
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) paid his daughter-in-law Danielle Enzi $306,718.18 from his campaign accounts over the same period, according to the report. She was a fundraiser before she married into the Enzi family, an Enzi spokesman said. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) paid his daughter Amy Towles $138,933.37 over six years, CREW found. Bunning's office said it was for campaign accounting.
"It is an area that's ripe for abuse, for someone who wants to turn campaign funds into personal use," said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the nonprofit group Public Citizen. Although most lawmakers do not abuse the practice, he said, "those campaign funds always come from special interests, and those special interests are always looking for something in return."
Information about the practice is not easy to find, because senators are required to disclose such payments only in the minutiae of their periodic public statements of campaign finance expenditure and do not flag the recipients as relatives. CREW staff compiled the data over nine months by looking at microfiche and electronic records for the 2002, 2004 and 2006 election cycles, and by tracing names.
None of these arrangements appears to violate federal election law, noted Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director. Although lawmakers are barred from hiring relatives as staffers in their legislative offices, family members may perform campaign work, as long as the pay is reasonable and the individuals are qualified.
Yet some lawmakers are seeking to restrict payments to some family members as part of a broader effort to eliminate opportunities for conflicts and improprieties -- an effort urged by watchdog groups such as CREW after ethics scandals over the past two years, including several cases involving lawmakers' family members on political payrolls who may or may not have performed much work.
The senators' family payments were relatively small, compared with the $5.1 million that 72 House members paid from campaign funds to relatives or to relatives' companies or employers during the same period, according to CREW. "We found much worse stuff in the House," Sloan said.
Yet the Senate has become a roadblock to changing the rules on family employment. The House, in contrast, approved legislation last July to ban payments from campaign or leadership funds to candidates' spouses and to require the disclosure of campaign payments to other immediate family members. The bill was sent to the Senate, where it has stalled indefinitely.
The House acted after disclosures that former lobbyist Jack Abramoff organized campaign contributions or other payments that wound up in the hands of several lawmakers' relatives. Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.), who announced his retirement from the House last month, is under federal investigation along with his wife, Julie, in part related to employment for her provided by Abramoff and other lobbyists.
Senators took up the issue before passing the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act on Jan. 18, 2007. The law tightened rules on accepting meals, private plane rides and other perks from lobbyists. But an amendment to ban the practice of paying relatives for their campaign work was rejected 54 to 41, with Boxer voting "present."