Congress

Justice Department requests Ethics Committee deferral on Rep. Spano case

Tlaib and Huizenga cases still under consideration; details emerge in newly released documents

The Justice Department requested that the House Ethics Committee defer action on a case involving Rep. Ross Spano, R-Fla.(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House Ethics Committee released on Thursday the Office of Congressional Ethics referral documents for cases regarding Reps. Bill Huizenga, Ross Spano and Rashida Tlaib, deferring consideration of the Spano case at the request of the Justice Department.

The Office of Congressional Ethics first referred the three cases to the House Ethics panel on Aug. 16. The OCE is a nonpartisan entity that reviews allegations of misconduct involving House staff and lawmakers and refers cases to the House Ethics Committee with recommendations for further review or dismissal.

Campaign finance and use of campaign funds are at the center of all three cases regarding Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, Spano, a Florida Republican, and Huizenga, a Michigan Republican.

The OCE recommended that House Ethics review Spano’s case further because “there is substantial reason to believe that Rep. Spano received improper loans, in excess of federal campaign contribution limits, to support his election to the House of Representatives,” according to the referral released today.  The OCE board voted 5-0 to support the referral. 

The House Ethics Committee extended its review of the Spano case on Sept. 30, before voting unanimously to defer consideration of the matter at the request of the Justice Department. The vote follows previous precedent in situations where there is federal action involving the lawmaker in question. 

Complaints to both the FEC and OCE alleged that Spano borrowed $180,000 from two friends and illegally loaned the proceeds to his campaign. Campaign finance law allows candidates to loan their campaigns any amount of personal funds, but loans from others are considered campaign contributions. Therefore they are subject to limits of $2,700 per cycle.

Spano said in a statement Thursday that he plans to fully cooperate with the Justice Department investigation into possible campaign finance violations.

“We acknowledged that mistakes were made with respect to the campaign loans, but those mistakes were completely inadvertent and unintentional. We were the ones who self-reported this to the FEC,” Spano said. “We are confident that upon review, the Justice Department will see it that way, too.”

Tlaib and Huizenga documents released

Emails between Tlaib and campaign staffers discussing the need and plans to pay Tlaib a stipend or salary during her campaign for Congress are laid bare in the documents released Thursday from the OCE preliminary investigation. 

During Tlaib’s 2018 run for Congress, she paid herself a $4,000-a-month salary from campaign funds.

“I am struggling financially right now,” Tlaib wrote in an  April 2018 email to her campaign manager and others.  

Her campaign manager, Andy Goddeeris, agreed that it was in the interest of the campaign to allocate funds to pay the candidate.

“We need you at full strength, and you’re not at full strength if you’re having to worry about your finances,” wrote Goddeeris. “If it’s legally permissible I want to do what’s necessary so that this campaign doesn’t dig you a hole you’re struggling to get out of.”

Under federal law, candidates may pay themselves a salary within limits, as long as they are not an incumbent federal officeholder and the salary paid comes from the candidate’s principal campaign committee.

While candidates are allowed to pay themselves a salary during the campaign, Tlaib reported a salary of $17,500 in two payments after the Nov. 6 election, according to her disclosure. The payments were dated Nov. 16 and Dec. 1.

Photocopies of check stubs for the payments after the Nov. 6 election are included in the exhibits with the OCE filing. 

“There is substantial reason to believe that Rep. Tlaib converted campaign funds from Rashida Tlaib for Congress to personal use or Rep. Tlaib’s campaign committee expended funds that were not attributable to bona fide campaign or political purposes,” said the OCE referral to the House Ethics panel, recommending further review of the case. The OCE board voted 5-0 for the referral in August. 

Tlaib’s response to the OCE referral, also released Thursday, acknowledges the two payments after Election Day, and says that both were to pay out accrued salary that had been previously witheld.

Tlaib’s lawyers also allege that the case is outside the jurisdiction of the OCE and that the consideration of her case sets a precedent that is stacked against candidates of average means. 

“This review should alarm anyone thinking of running for Congress,” wrote her three lawyers.

“Nonincumbent candidates may be discouraged from running — especially working mothers like Representative Tlaib, who could otherwise avail themselves of the FEC’s emerging allowances for salaries and child care but must fear unfounded charges of personal use,” the lawyers wrote. 

Michigan Democrats filed a complaint against Huizenga with the Federal Election Commission last fall, accusing him and his family of misusing thousands of dollars in campaign funds and failing to correctly itemize reimbursements. The FEC’s in-house counsel investigated and recommended that the commission dismiss the allegations, finding no “reasonable inference” that the campaign converted funds to personal use. But the OCE moved forward with an initial inquiry into the allegations and recommended that the House Ethics Committee review the case further.

The OCE board voted 5-0 in August, according to the newly released documents, to dismiss an allegation that Huizenga authorized expenditures from his Members’ Representational Allowance that were not for permissible official expenses.

The board voted 4-0, with one abstention, to recommend further review of an allegation that “Huizenga’s Campaign Committee reported campaign disbursements that were not legitimate and verifiable campaign expenditures attributable to bona fide campaign or political purposes.”

The evidence filings include more than 300 pages of transcribed interviews with Huizenga staff, invoices, receipts and itemized disbursements. 

The House Ethics Committee decided to continue consideration of Tlaib’s  and Huizenga’s cases. 

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