RICHMOND — Former U.S. senator Jim Webb, the first prominent Democrat to officially explore a 2016 presidential run, is defending payments of tens of thousands of dollars to family members by his political action committee.
The Born Fighting PAC has paid more than $90,000 over several years to Webb’s daughter and wife for work on the design and management of his Web sites, according to a report published by Business Insider.
The payments could present political difficulties for Webb, who represented Virginia in the Senate for one term, as he tries to build a national political network capable of competing with Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presumed front-runner for the 2016 Democratic nomination.
In a statement Tuesday, a Webb spokeswoman called the work by Webb’s daughter and wife “real and provable.” The statement did not confirm the dollar amounts reported by Business Insider, which were based on filings made in compliance with campaign finance law.
“Adding up numbers across several years for a sensational headline doesn’t tell the story,” spokeswoman Ashleigh Owens said. “Since its inception, the Born Fighting PAC has supported Senator Webb’s vision of leadership, both with respect to issues he continues to advance and also to support candidates.”
Webb stepped out of public view after serving in the Senate from 2007 to 2013. But he began to reemerge in May with the publication of his 10th book, a memoir titled “I Heard My Country Calling.”
By summer’s end, Webb had launched a Twitter account and had made or planned trips to the first-in-the-nation caucus and primary states, Iowa and New Hampshire.
In November, he announced in an unorthodox video that he was forming an exploratory committee to raise money for a possible presidential campaign.
The flurry of activity came as a surprise to some political observers who remember Webb — a Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan — as uncomfortable with the donor maintenance and day-to-day politicking that was required of him as a senator.
Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, said reports of the payments could be damaging to Webb as he works to establish himself as a candidate.
“He’s got to build from the ground up a national political organization,” Kidd said. “He’s got a very small but very loyal following. This could make it difficult to build upon that.”
Webb’s statement says that his daughter, Amy Webb, has worked on Webb’s personal Web site since 2001 and on his PAC Web site since 2009 and that she has handled matters of federal campaign finance compliance since 2013. Her work ramped up this year as Webb rebuilt his public profile.
Webb’s wife, Hong Le Webb, who is a lawyer, was paid for her work “relating to various aspects of multiple Web site designs” during a seven-month period this year, including “vetting design consultants, negotiating contracts and content management,” the statement says.
“The payments were well within the law, were scrutinized regularly by outside legal counsel, and were much lower than usual amounts of compensation for such services,” the statement says.
Business Insider did not question the legality of the payments. But Kidd said reports about them could lead some people to associate Webb with Virginia politicians who have been in trouble with the law — most notably, former governor Robert F. McDonnell, who is scheduled to be sentenced next week in a corruption case that involved his wife and daughters.
“There’s a slingshot effect,” Kidd said. Webb “happens to be from Virginia, and Virginia happens to be a state whose former governor could go to jail . . . for taking money for his family, for a daughter. People are going to draw those connections, unfair as it may be.”