When Rep. Dave Reichert relocated to a new District home in January, he didn’t need to hire movers: Three of his aides volunteered to help schlep his belongings.
According to Reichert’s office, the aides who took part in the midweek move did so of their own volition and used vacation days, a decision that Congressional ethics observers said likely kept the Washington Republican on the right side of House rules.
It’s an old and in some ways unremarkable story — Hill staff do little personal chores for Members of Congress all the time.
Both the House and Senate ethics manuals bar Members from utilizing staff for non-Congressional work and offer detailed guidance on maintaining the divide between official and personal time when staff work on campaigns.
But individuals familiar with the ethics process acknowledged that there is a gray area between official duties and personal favors to Members.
“Obviously all kinds of things go on on Capitol Hill as an accommodation to Members by staff who, in a sense, volunteer to do things that might be considered personal, like going to get lunch or picking them up at the airport,” said attorney Stan Brand, a former House general counsel who often represents Members before the Ethics Committee.
“The problem comes if it’s on a larger scale or is perceived to be done as a condition of employment, even though it’s quote ‘voluntary,’” he added. “But as long as people feel free not to do it, and as long as it’s clearly not a condition of their employment, I think they can use their leave time as they see fit.”
According to Reichert spokesman Charles McCray, three aides — Legislative Correspondent Quinton Hershiser, Legislative Assistant Ashley Johnson and Staff Assistant Colin Swanson — helped Reichert move his belongings on a late-January weekday when the House was not in session.
“They were told they needed to take a vacation day for that, but they still decided to help out,” McCray said.
McCray said the aides were aware of the move from casual conversation “chatting in between meetings and votes and things like that,” but that Reichert did not e-mail the staff or otherwise issue a request for help from his office staff.
“These folks knew the Congressman was planning on moving and so offered up their help,” McCray said.
A pair of photos posted to Hershiser’s Facebook account dated Jan. 27 depicted an event labeled “Moving our boss.”
In one of the photos, two individuals, one of whom is identified as Johnson, were shown carrying what appeared to be a carpet. The second photo showed a man, who is smiling broadly, standing in the rear of a moving truck filled with furniture. Neither of the photos included Reichert.
A series of comments appeared beneath the photo, including one attributed to Hershiser’s account, that stated: “We volunteered (AKA where’s my raise?!).” The banter also includes a comment attributed to Johnson’s account that read: “I can’t move my arms.”
Each House office sets its own personnel policies, including how many vacation days staff can take and when they can use them. But aside from rules limiting outside income for senior staff and guidance on when aides may volunteer or work for campaigns, neither the House nor Senate regulates how aides may use their own vacation time.
“What constitutes a staff member’s ‘own time’ is determined by the personnel policies that are in place in the employing office,” the House Ethics Manual states. “Time that is available to a staff member, under those policies, to engage in personal or other outside activities may instead be used to do campaign work, if the individual so chooses. This free time may include, for example, a lunch period, time after the end of the business day, and annual leave.”
Although the House manual encourages aides to maintain time records, there is no unified format for Congressional offices to do so.
“There is still more latitude than many people are led to believe in how House offices manage their own personnel,” noted National Taxpayers Union spokesman Pete Sepp.
While Members are prohibited from using their staffs for their personal benefit — former Rep. Jim Traficant (D-Ohio) was convicted in 2002 on public corruption charges that included forcing his aides to work on his Ohio farm while on the Congressional payroll — a 1995 federal appeals court ruled that some otherwise-personal tasks, such as picking up laundry, might qualify as official business.
“One can only hope that the employees did it out of the kindness and respect for their boss,” Sepp said, referring to Reichert’s aides. “There doesn’t seem to be much written in any of the personnel policies about whether this is an obligation.”
But Sepp added that the blending of official duties with personal favors can potentially put aides in an uncomfortable position: “From a staffer’s standpoint, what do you do if you get asked such a favor?”
An aide who answered the phone at the House Ethics Committee on Monday said no individuals were available to speak to the media, but Roll Call’s archives include numerous examples, from Senate aides who serve as de facto drivers for lawmakers to House aides who take regular breaks to walk the office dog.
During the 2008 federal trial of then-Sen. Ted Stevens, prosecutors revealed that the Alaska Republican used his aides for personal tasks including balancing his checkbook, withdrawing cash for his spouse and paying bills. The Senate Ethics Committee did not publicly review those charges before Stevens was defeated in the 2008 general election.
Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, noted the group encourages Members’ offices to maintain detailed time records.
“It’s always good to document time,” said Fitch, who said that the issue often arises when a staffer splits time between the office and campaign duties.
“There’s just a general perception that you want to convey that you are complying with both the letter and the spirit of the law,” Fitch said.