Q: I am chief of staff for a Member of the House with a question about Congressional staff working on campaigns. I saw that Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) is being investigated for using Hill staff on her campaigns. This worried me because staffers in our office often volunteer on campaigns in their spare time. I am fairly certain that it is not illegal for staffers to do so. Please tell me that I am right.
A: You are. It is not illegal for House staffers to work on campaigns. But doing so is not without risk. In fact, a handful of laws are implicated whenever Hill staff work on campaigns, each carrying its own risks. The Richardson case illustrates these well.
In June, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent a letter to the FBI requesting an investigation of Richardson’s conduct relating to her staffers’ work on campaigns. In support of its request, CREW cited news reports of former staffers claiming to have been forced to volunteer at campaign events, in some cases under threat of dismissal. The letter attached emails, including one from Richardson’s chief of staff to all aides stating: “All staff are required to attend Ms. Richardson’s event. Bring spouses and tell interns they have to be there as well.”
The letter also alleged that Richardson’s office used staffers to prepare materials for campaign events. It cited an email from a legislative assistant to two other staff members stating that Richardson wanted staff to prepare her a binder for an endorsement event.
Finally, the letter alleged that Richardson tried to dictate which political campaigns her staffers could volunteer to help. It cited an email in which Richardson “angrily” responded to a staff member’s request to volunteer for a campaign in Tennessee through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I never authorized staff to communicate to the DCCC,” Richardson wrote.
So what — if anything — is wrong with this? According to the letter, at least three different laws are at issue. Members and staffers would be wise to be familiar with all of them.
First, a federal statute prohibits Members from taking — or threatening to take — certain adverse employment actions against a staffer for withholding or neglecting to make a political contribution. The purpose of the statute, according to the Department of Justice, is to protect staffers and other federal employees “from being forced by job-related threats or reprisals to donate to political candidates or causes.” The statute covers not just financial contributions but services as well, including volunteering.
A second federal statute prohibits soliciting political contributions from anyone in a federal building. The statute is specifically focused on the location of the solicitation, as it applies whenever a person is “located in a room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties by an officer or employee of the United States.”
Finally, a third federal statute governs the appropriate use of federal funds. It states that “appropriations shall be applied only to the objects for which the appropriations were made.” The House Ethics Manual states that, under this statute, staffers “may not be compensated from public funds to perform ... campaign activities on behalf of the Member.”