On Nov. 5, 2009, at the behest of Rep. Michele Bachmann, thousands of tea party activists descended on the Capitol to vent their rage over the health care overhaul bill pending before Congress.
The assembled activists chanted, "Kill the bill! Kill the bill!" and waved signs opposing a government takeover of health care — but they may not have known that the same government was paying for the event.
According to House expense reports, Bachmann and three conservative GOP colleagues — Reps. Tom Price (Ga.), Steve King (Iowa) and Todd Akin (Mo.) — each paid $3,407.50 that day, a total of $13,630, to a sound and stage company called National Events, apparently for the sound system used at the rally.
The money came from the Members' taxpayer-funded office accounts, despite House rules prohibiting the use of these funds for political activities. Bachmann's office insists the expense was a proper use of official funds.
Bachmann billed the event as a "press conference," which can be funded from official accounts. But no questions were taken from the press and, unlike most press conferences, it opened with a prayer, the national anthem and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
A few days earlier, the Minnesota Republican had appeared on a Fox News talk show and made an appeal for activists to come to D.C. for the event, promising to help them lobby Congress against the bill.
"I'm asking people to come to Washington, D.C., by the carload," Bachmann said. "I'd love to have every one of your viewers join me so that we can go up and down through the halls. Find Members of Congress, look at the whites of their eyes and say, 'Don't take away my health care.'"
House rules prohibit the use of official resources for political purposes, but the definition of what is political is murky. The House Ethics Manual notes that "no specific definition of bona fide campaign or political purposes exists in the rules" and that "Members often have discretion in determining whether an event will be 'political' or 'official.'"
The ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics at the time, claiming Bachmann had violated a clearer directive from the House Administration Committee that Member websites "may not include grassroots lobbying or solicit support for a Member's position." Bachmann had posted a release on her site announcing the event. The ethics office apparently investigated the complaint and dropped it.
CREW did not request an investigation of the rental of the sound system; Executive Director Melanie Sloan said her group did not know that Bachmann and the other lawmakers had used their office accounts to pay for it.
"The reality is that this was a grass-roots rally and this was political," Sloan said. "That would be an improper political expenditure."
King told Roll Call that the rally has "already been through ethics. ... I dealt with that and it's been put away."
Bachmann, who announced last week that she is running for president, has gone from a little-known freshman Member in 2007 to a major conservative figure in part because she has strategically used her campaign, political action committee and Congressional office to build a national following.
For instance, in January, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) gave the official Republican response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, complaining that Obama had launched a big-government agenda of bailouts and health care reform that was crippling the nation's economy.
Bachmann gave her own response, calling it the tea party response, making many of the same points as Ryan. The speech was streamed online by the Tea Party Express. The following day, Bachmann's campaign paid Oval Office Writers — an Arlington, Va., firm — a $5,000 fee for "speechwriting."
Bachmann has occasionally spent money out of her office account for things closely tied to her political activities. But as with the rally, it is not clear whether she has violated any rules.
For instance, in June 2010, Bachmann added to her Congressional payroll a "senior advisor" named Guy Short, whose last Congressional job had been chief of staff to ex-Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), who lost her re-election bid in 2008.
According to Congressional pay records, Bachmann paid Short $5,000 for the month.
On June 3, 2010, Short established C&M Strategies in Colorado. Records on file with the Colorado secretary of state list Short as the "registered agent" of the firm; the incorporator was Colorado certified public accountant Barry Arrington.
In July, Short dropped off Bachmann's payroll, but Bachmann's campaign began paying C&M Strategies for fundraising consulting services.
That month, Arrington filed papers with the Federal Election Commission creating Bachmann's leadership PAC, called Many Individual Conservatives Helping Elect Leaders Everywhere, which by September was also paying C&M Strategies for fundraising consulting services. Since then, MICHELEPAC and the campaign committee have paid C&M Strategies about $150,000 for fundraising consulting, and Short has never again appeared on Bachmann's Congressional payroll.
Asked about Short's duties in the Congressional office, Bachmann spokesman Doug Sachtleben said in an email, "With six years of hill experience as a Chief of Staff, Guy Short worked with every member of the Congresswoman's staff to ensure that they worked as effectively as possible to serve the constituents of Minnesota's sixth district."
Several other Bachmann staffers, including Communications Director David Dziok, former Chief of Staff Ron Carey, former "constituent service officer" Jack Tomczak and former Chief of Staff Andy Parrish all received regular checks from her campaign while serving on her Congressional payroll as well — which is permissible as long as the employees make a clear separation between the time they spend working on the campaign and the hours they are working for the Congressional office.
Bachmann also appears to have used her Congressional office account to cover travel costs for television appearances — again, an unusual expense but not one barred by House rules.
For example, on Jan. 12, 2009, a Monday, Bachmann and then-Press Secretary Mary Vought flew to New York at a cost to Bachmann's Congressional office of about $600, according to House spending records.
The next day, Bachmann was a guest on the Fox Business morning program "Money for Breakfast," apparently in the show's studio in New York. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) was interviewed in the same segment from a studio in Milwaukee. Vought was reimbursed $386 for lodging costs for Monday night, and the two flew back to D.C. on Tuesday at a total cost of $130. Bachmann was back in Washington in time for a 2 p.m. Financial Services Committee hearing on Jan. 13.
The topics of the program and the hearing were the same: the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which Bachmann opposed.
Bachmann's office accounts show other trips outside her district that do not correlate with public appearances, but after June 2009, the House stopped disclosing the destination of office-funded travel, so it is impossible to know where Bachmann has gone on the taxpayer dime since then.
Many Members who appear on New York-based TV programs have the costs covered by the networks, and those costs are reported to the House Ethics Committee as "gift travel." For instance, a month after Bachmann's trip, CBS News paid for Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) and her husband, Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.), to fly to New York and spend the night before the Congresswoman's appearance on "The Early Show" to discuss her son's drug addiction.
Bachmann's office defended all of her expenses as proper uses of the Congressional account.
"Congresswoman Bachmann listens to the people who sent her to the House, works for reform on their behalf, and knows that they share her profound concern with Washington's taxing, spending, regulating and bailouts. She also communicates back to them and communications is a key responsibility of her Congressional office. The expenditures you've highlighted were all consistent with the official responsibilities of the Congresswoman and her staff on behalf of the people of Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District," Sachtleben said.
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