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Can Capitol Hill Staffers Work on Campaigns?

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.”

Did Richardson violate any of these laws? Richardson has denied doing so. Shortly after CREW’s letter in June, a Richardson spokesman said, “Nothing in the CREW letter or its exhibits support the allegations that Congresswoman Richardson ever forced or coerced members of her staff to engage in campaign activity.”

While the evidence in CREW’s letter does raise questions, it is far from clear whether any violations have occurred.

What is clear, however, is that significant consequences can flow from the mere appearance of possible violations.

Even if Richardson is ultimately vindicated, the consequences she has already suffered are not small. While it is not clear CREW’s letter resulted in any action, the House Ethics Committee had already been conducting a related inquiry of Richardson dating back to at least November 2010. Responding to such an inquiry can require substantial time and expense. Indeed, Richardson has disclosed that she has already incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, some of which have almost certainly gone toward fighting charges of using staff for campaign purposes.

How, then, can your office ensure compliance and avoid the consequences that can flow from the mere appearance of violations?

Perhaps the most effective measure is to know the rules and to make sure that your Member and staffers know them, too. The line between official work and campaign work is not always clear. The House Ethics Manual devotes an entire chapter — more than 40 pages — to rules governing campaign activity. And there are many rules beyond those at issue in the Richardson matter.

As the campaign season heats up, if it has been a while since you and your staff have reviewed the rules, it might be a good time for a refresher.

C. Simon Davidson is a partner with the law firm McGuireWoods. Click here to submit questions. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice. Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship.

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