Sen. James Inhofe last week terminated two part-time staffers after Roll Call raised questions about their employment, but the Oklahoma Republican continues to employ a part-time director of African affairs who earns the rest of his income as a missionary in the Africa division of the Assemblies of God church.
Inhofe said last week that he terminated the two Oklahoma-based staff members "to keep it clean" and ensure there are no conflicts. But he said he sees no conflict with his D.C.-based director of African affairs working on African issues for the Senate and a church group at the same time.
Inhofe has had the three men on his staff for years. In 2000, Charles Sublett came aboard as a legal assistant and Jerry Holmes joined the staff as a military adviser. Sublett is paid $5,000 a year and Holmes makes $9,500 a year, according to payroll records maintained by LegiStorm. Mark Powers joined the staff in 2001 and is now earning about $15,000 a year as director of African affairs.
According to Federal Election Commission records, Sublett has also donated $6,850 to Inhofe's re-election campaigns since joining his staff, a violation of Senate rules prohibiting staff from donating to their bosses. The other two men are not contributors.
In an interview last week, Inhofe said he was unaware of the campaign donations until Roll Call brought it to his attention. "We will give back the contributions," Inhofe said, and he is taking Holmes and Sublett off the payroll.
Inhofe said he and Sublett are both pilots, and they fly together to military bases in the state. "So he does that, more than the legal part," the lawmaker said.
But Sublett is also "a real smart lawyer, and he has been helpful to me in that respect," Inhofe added. Sublett will still fly with him, but no longer as a staff member, he said.
Similarly, Holmes is a retired Air Force major general who advises Inhofe on issues regarding Oklahoma military affairs. "When I am not in the state and something happens militarily, he will go there on behalf of me because he's current on all those issues," Inhofe said. Despite being removed from the payroll, Holmes "will continue to do it for me, but as a volunteer."
Powers is a more complicated case.
Inhofe is ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, but his passion is for African development. A story in the Oklahoman newspaper in late 2008 quoted the Senator as describing his many trips to Africa as "a Jesus thing" and noted that his focus was fostered by the International Foundation, a faith-based group that is connected to the "C Street" townhouse where several Members of Congress live.
The House's Office of Congressional Ethics recently dismissed allegations that the foundation was providing below-market rent to several Members at the Capitol Hill residence.
Inhofe has said that he was first persuaded in the late 1990s to become engaged in African issues by his friend Doug Coe, head of the International Foundation. The foundation is popularly known as "The Family," the title of a book about the group by reporter and author Jeff Sharlet.
In a video posted on the website of the group Faith and Action, Inhofe said his first visit to Africa was a 1998 trip, arranged by Coe, which he took with his daughter and Powers, who lived in Africa for many years as an Assemblies of God missionary.
[IMGCAP(1)]Inhofe told Roll Call last week that he never declared that trip as a gift from Coe or the International Foundation on his personal financial disclosure forms because, while Coe paid for the trip initially, "then I contributed to some foundation — I don't remember what it was — the amount of the tickets for myself and my daughter, so I didn't think it was necessary" to report it as a gift.
In September 2002, Inhofe gave speeches at three Oklahoma churches and had the congregations donate the honorariums to the International Foundation; those transactions are reported — though incorrectly — on his disclosure form for that year.
In March 2001, Powers joined Inhofe's staff as a part-time employee earning $5,000 a year, but he has remained on the Assemblies of God missionary rolls.
Deborah Sherman, administrative assistant for the Assemblies of God World Missions regional director for Africa, said Powers is "not the traditional missionary in the sense of the word."
Most of the church's missionaries are stationed in their host regions and are there to provide humanitarian assistance and help seed new churches. Powers is stationed in Washington, D.C.
"What Mark does — and what he does for anybody that asks him — he meets with groups of young people who are interested in going to Africa. He has met with doctors. ... His role is just to advise them what they need to know. What is the best type of help they can provide," Sherman said. "Mark is an adviser for both the Senator's office, which needs to know that cultural inroad, and then what he does for us is actually the same thing. He acts as an adviser."
Sherman said Powers earns his living the same way that other missionaries do: by soliciting donations from individuals or local churches that want to support their missions.
"I wasn't aware that Mark is being paid by the Senate," Sherman said.
Inhofe's office said Powers was unaware he was still on the Assemblies of God website — which accepts donations to Powers' African mission — and he has asked the church to remove his name.
Inhofe said Powers maintains a deep knowledge of the people and the culture of Africa and serves as the Senator's guide.
Within a few weeks of his hiring, Powers joined the Senator on a trip to Africa. The Senate Armed Services Committee reported that the government spent a little more than $12,000 for the two men on that trip.
The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World both reported shortly before that trip that Inhofe was planning to join a Congressional delegation to Africa being led by then-Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and that the Senator intended to do missionary work on the side. The Tulsa World reported that Inhofe "hopes to join up with the House delegation for some of the official visits, but he also plans to use the trip for what his office described as private religious missionary work."
Senate reports do not detail specific travel dates, but Watts and five other House Members were in Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana and Morocco from April 6 to 11, 2001. Inhofe and Powers went to Benin and Cote d'Ivoire, apparently by themselves. No other Senate Armed Services Committee members traveled to West Africa between April and September 2001.
But Inhofe said all of his travel in Africa has been official business, even though he frequently engages in prayer and conversations about faith with the African leaders.
"If you are wanting to develop a relationship where you can get things done, you would do it with taking people to dinner or a variety of different things," Inhofe said. "I pray with them, and we've become real close. I've never gone and talked to groups and recruit people and praise the Lord and all that kind of thing."
Because of the dozens of trips that he has made and the close personal relationships that he has built, Inhofe said, he has been able to achieve a long list of accomplishments in Africa, including helping the U.S. military establish a unified command for its African operations.
Senate rules prohibit Members or staff from accepting outside employment that constitutes a conflict of interest and prohibits Senate offices from using outside funds to subsidize an official expense, but Inhofe's office said the arrangement with Powers violates neither of these standards.
"There is a very clear line of separation between what Mark Powers does in his official capacity as a Senate employee and what he does in his private work," Inhofe spokesman Jared Young said in an e-mail. "As a part-time employee working for Senator Inhofe, he drafts constituent mail pieces and advises on legislation ... that deals with Africa. He meets with visiting African dignitaries and officials, and engages with Ambassadors from Africa. He also provides his knowledge and expertise of the continent when he travels with Senator Inhofe.
"On the private side, while he was living in Africa, Mark was supported by local congregations for his work there. Those congregations have continued to support his work in Washington DC that is outside his part time work for Senator Inhofe," Young wrote. "In that non-public capacity, he has worked as a liaison providing cultural understanding and sharing his knowledge of Africa to various organizations, [nongovernmental organizations] and others engaged in international relief work. Having witnessed the suffering of the African people first hand when Mark lived there, he meets with and encourages anyone, regardless of religious affiliation, wanting to do positive work to meet the very tangible physical needs of those suffering."