Several House lawmakers have made their spouses and other relatives the highest-paid workers on their campaigns over the past few years.
dauDuring the past four and a half years, these relatives have collectively received millions in salaries, fees and bonuses, according to a CQ MoneyLine study of campaign finance records.
It all appears legal, but some people question whether this spending is ethical or even a good investment of donated money in modern elections.
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) leads the pack in payments to his spouse. Since 2007, McKeon has reported disbursements to his wife, Patricia, topping $264,000, including a bonus of $4,600 in January 2007. Her compensation more than doubles the salary of the next-highest-paid employee on McKeon's campaign and does not include thousands in reimbursements for food, travel and other expenses.
In response to Roll Call's query, McKeon said in a statement, "Patricia gets paid by the campaign as a senior staff member for handling multiple critical elements and roles of the operation and bringing roughly 20 years of experience to the table."
Campaign records show that at least four other House lawmakers made their spouses the highest-paid individuals on their campaign payrolls.
A 2001 Federal Election Commission opinion on the issue states that "salary payments to family members" are completely legal as long as "they are fair market value payments for bona fide, campaign-related services."
But Washington, D.C., watchdogs say this rule raises ethical and legal problems.
"The questions are: What are these people being paid for, do they have any experience and are they being paid the going rate?" said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which did similar studies in 2007 and 2008. "If they are not, it could be a campaign finance violation."
Some of these spousal employees have useful experience in the field. For instance, Rep. Bobby Rush's wife, Carolyn, started out as a community organizer in Chicago before working on his campaign.
Since 2007, the Illinois Democrat has paid his wife $235,000 in salary and consulting fees, more than six times that of his next-highest-paid campaign staffer. He also paid his sister, Judy, $800 and his son, Flynn, $275 during the past two cycles.
"His wife is very, very well-known and highly respected as a community organizer," Rush spokeswoman Renee Ferguson said. "She has the skills and knows block by block how to get elected here."
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher's wife, Rhonda — who was the California Republican's campaign manager before becoming his wife — has received more than $178,000 from her husband's campaign since 2007.
Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) paid his wife, Susan, $120,000, and Rep. Elton Gallegly paid his wife, Janice, more than $100,000 during the same period.
Doyle said in an email that his wife "is the full-time finance director for Doyle for Congress. Her responsibilities are in-district fundraising, data base management and FEC compliance."
Gallegly's office noted that his wife's pay is too small to get anyone else to do the job.
"She makes $26,400 a year," Gallegly spokesman Tom Pfeifer said, "and $26,400 a year is not a lot of money, particularly in today's economy. For that, Mrs. Gallegly does all the bookkeeping, files all of the FEC reports, coordinates the volunteers, creates and manages all the fundraising and other campaign events, answers the phone and even takes out the trash."
House disclosure rules require lawmakers to report all sources of spousal income over $1,000 for each year. But Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who paid his wife, Mereda, $30,000 from 2008 to 2010, failed to list this income on his financial disclosure reports. After being contacted by Roll Call, Johnson amended three years of reports to disclose his wife's campaign salary.
"Although this information was disclosed numerous times on Congressman Johnson's FEC report, he is amending his Congressional disclosures to reflect this income source as well," Johnson spokesman Andy Phelan said.
In addition to spouses, many Members of Congress have put other family members on their campaign payrolls.
For instance, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) has paid his aunt Beverly $114,000 over the past four years to answer phones, file paperwork and organize the campaign's grass-roots efforts.
"Bev was a longtime volunteer before she met the Congressman's uncle, whom she later married," campaign spokeswoman Jaime Lennon said. "Our contributors have known her for many, many years, and they all agree that she adds a lot of value to the campaign."
Beverly Ruppersberger said her passion for the job makes her a better employee than most Washington consultants.
"I am very detailed, and I'm so careful to an extent that I want everything to run smoothly," she said. "I knew him and his sister from my church, and I just knew how honest he was, so I just wanted to help."
Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) paid the law firm of his sister, Michelle, about $309,000 — more than any other vendor or staffer — for everything from campaign management to data entry.
During the same period, his campaign has doled out $800 to his niece, Angela, for media consulting, and an additional $400 in disbursements to his ex-wife, Ivie Lewellen Clay. He also paid $11,000 to his nonprofit, the William L. Clay Scholarship and Research Fund, for "voter education research."
"I would say that for us, the family that works hard together, wins together," said Michelle Clay, who works as the campaign's political director, legal counsel and chief fundraiser as well as "a trusted voice in the Congressman's political circle."
"Over the last decade, my brother and I have built on the historic legacy of public service that our father, former Congressman Bill Clay, established in Missouri's first Congressional district," she added.
Rep. Joe Barton has also paid large campaign salaries to family members. The Texas Republican has paid his daughter, Kristin, more than $106,000 since 2007, including more than $13,000 in bonuses for campaign work. Her campaign wages started 18 months after Barton's wife, Terri, received her last campaign paycheck in 2007 — a year in which she received more than $27,000.
Correction: July 26, 2011
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Angela Clay. She is the niece of Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.).