Lawmakers Accused of Flouting Rules on Use of Staff

By Carrie Johnson and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 8, 2008

Democratic Reps. Jane Harman and Neil Abercrombie spent more than $2 million on their 2006 reelection campaigns but paid only $5,000 to campaign workers, according to campaign finance reports.

The two have been accused by a disgruntled former employee of forcing congressional staff to perform campaign duties and run personal errands on official time, allegations that both lawmakers vigorously denied yesterday.

Harman, a seven-term lawmaker from Southern California, and Abercrombie, a longtime congressman from Hawaii, ran lean campaign bids that they say relied heavily on volunteers between 2005 and 2006.

Both employed Laura I. Flores, who has pleaded guilty to fraud, in their congressional offices during that period. She is cooperating with a government inquiry into the use of legislative resources that has raised questions about whether congressional staff members were paid in part for helping with campaigns, according to a source familiar with the case and court documents.

Citing the Flores case, a watchdog group yesterday called on the House ethics committee to investigate whether lawmakers routinely flout rules that bar legislative employees from performing campaign work on official time.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington urged the House ethics panel to launch its own probe of a problem it warned may be "pervasive." CREW also asked congressional leaders to establish a process for staff members to complain about abuses without fear of retaliation.

"American taxpayers have a right to assume that their money is being spent on the people's business and not on campaign activities or personal matters," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW.

Using congressional staff members on official time to help campaign violates ethics rules. The practice also may violate laws that prohibit soliciting political contributions from employees, ethics experts said.

Staff members often use free time to help out with their bosses' political campaigns, volunteering at night or on weekends. If a legislative aide is going to do extensive political work during a session, congressional rules require the aide to take a leave of absence from the legislative office.

Harman said yesterday that "my office is meticulous [in record-keeping], and I have no reason to believe we have ever behaved inappropriately," She said her legislative and campaign offices have "not been contacted about any investigation and don't expect to be."

David Helfert, a spokesman for Abercrombie's congressional office, said the 10-term lawmaker completely separates his legislative aides and political operation. "There's a line. We know where it is. So we don't cross it," he said.

Former aides to several House members have accused the lawmakers of flouting campaign rules, according to accounts from the employees and reports issued by CREW last year. But the practice mostly has operated without much interest from ethics police or prosecutors, according to watchdog groups and some staff members.

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