By Carrie Johnson and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 8, 2008
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.
In 2006, the House ethics committee struck a deal with Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) after investigating allegations that he ordered his legislative staffers to work on political campaigns, baby-sit for him and pick up his dry cleaning. The committee announced that Conyers acknowledged a "lack of clarity" in his communication with staff members regarding their official duties and responsibilities, according to a statement released at the time.
Deanna Maher, whose concerns gave rise to the ethics complaint, said yesterday that Conyers forced her to stump for candidates in local races and baby-sit his two sons while she worked as a deputy chief of staff in his Detroit office from 1998 until she quit in 2005.
Abuse of congressional staff by lawmakers is widespread, she said. "With staffers I talked to, it was a topic of conversation," she said. "I'm not saying all of them do it, but it's entrenched."
The issue surfaced anew Friday, when U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema sentenced Flores to six months in prison for embezzling $169,000 from congressional accounts controlled by Abercrombie and Harman.
Brinkema reduced Flores's prison term in part because she is cooperating with an early-stage inquiry by the Justice Department's public integrity section into misuse of resources, according to a source familiar with the case.
Current aides to Abercrombie and Harman said they take unusual care to abide by the rules, which campaign finance expert Kenneth Gross said can be "very vague." Neither Abercrombie nor Harman faced strong opposition in their 2006 races, reducing their need for get-out-the-vote drives and other labor-intensive efforts.
"A lot of campaigns outsource the fundraising services and even the event services," Gross said, pointing out he was not addressing allegations about the two lawmakers. "You do try to get volunteers, but usually you will have some paid staff involved in that, too."
Harman spent $1.2 million in the 2006 cycle. Over the two-year span, the "Friends of Jane Harman" campaign made just three payments to individuals not associated with campaign, consulting and polling firms, including a $5,000 consulting payment to a staffer who also served as the communications director in Harman's legislative office, records show.
Abercrombie's campaign is almost a "totally volunteer-centric situation," Helfert said, though three outside consultants have been on his campaign payroll.
In the 2006 election cycle, he spent more than $810,000. But, as has been the case for the last five years, no paid staff members worked for the campaign, according to MoneyLine's analysis of campaign spending.
The "Abercrombie for Congress" campaign paid for everything from $67,000 in catering for a fundraiser to $39,000 for office rent and $4,278 for Christmas cards to be printed and mailed. Aside from the consultants, however, there are no records of who staffed the campaign office or who sent out the holiday cards.
Staff writer Lyndsey Layton and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.