The House Ethics Committee is reviewing allegations that one of the House GOP’s rising stars violated ethics rules by mingling taxpayer and political money during a competitive campaign for a party leadership position, according to several sources.
House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who delivered the GOP response to the State of the Union address, is accused of hiring political operatives to work alongside her official staff during her bid for the chairmanship.
A complaint was filed in July with the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent watchdog tasked with investigating alleged wrongdoing by members of Congress. The office does not confirm or deny that investigations are under way. The complaint was referred to the House Ethics Committee over Christmas, according to aides close to McMorris Rodgers.
Nate Hodson, a spokesman for McMorris Rodgers, said the office conformed to House rules during the election.
“We are confident that every activity was compliant with all federal laws, House rules and Standards of Conduct. We are fully cooperating and look forward to seeing this matter dismissed,” he said.
The investigation hinges on a heated November 2012 race for the chairmanship of the Republican Conference between McMorris Rodgers and Rep. Tom Price of Georgia. McMorris Rodgers, with the tacit blessing of Speaker John A. Boehner, narrowly defeated Price in a private vote held among House Republicans on Nov. 14.
Price's office declined to comment on the investigation.
Earlier that month, McMorris Rodgers summoned Dawn Sugasa and Stan Shore from her home-state political team to Washington, D.C., the complaint states. Records show they were on the payroll of her political operation, but the complaint states they nevertheless worked closely alongside Chief of Staff Jeremy Deutsch to orchestrate the campaign.
"The three of them were an amoeba that kind of moved around, and when you talk to one you talk to three," one GOP staffer said. "You would never meet with one of them without meeting with the other two.
“It was clear they were working on the campaign for the chairmanship,” the source added.
Generally, there is a strict firewall between political donations and the taxpayer money members are budgeted to run their offices. Intraparty campaigns to become a congressional leader are a rare exception. However, ethics rules state that the two funding sources may not be used on the same part of the campaign.
For instance, if campaign money is used to pay for a brochure advertising their candidacy, members are forbidden from using any official resources for the production of that mailer. That means taxpayer money, on-the-clock staff or the office space in the Capitol complex may not be dedicated to that particular piece.
Political staffers are allowed to work with official staff on these campaigns, but only if the official staff do so on their own time, such as on a lunch break or after official working hours.
The complaint alleges that Deutsch, Sugasa, Shore and Mildred Webber, an experienced Republican aide, often worked together on the race in McMorris Rodgers' Rayburn Building office. Three separate sources confirmed that Sugasa and Shore at least occasionally worked from there.
The complaint further states that Shore collaborated with official staff on a pamphlet showcasing McMorris Rodgers' leadership abilities, which was sent to House Republican members’ offices.
When reached by phone in August last year, Shore confirmed that he was involved in producing the packet, but declined to comment further, instead referring calls to McMorris Rodgers' press team. Two sources close to the campaign confirmed that both Shore and official staffers worked on the pamphlet.
Federal Election Commission records show that Sugasa was paid tens of thousands of dollars from McMorris Rodgers' political campaign fund in late 2012, including a payment of $29,335 on Nov. 15, the day after the leadership election. Shore, who runs Polis Political Services in Washington state, was similarly compensated tens of thousands of dollars from the campaign.
Deutsch is on the official payroll, as was Webber, who was acting chief of staff to Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, before moving to McMorris Rodgers’ office to help with the campaign. Webber is an experienced hand at leadership races, including a stint running then-Rep. Tom DeLay’s 1994 bid for majority whip. She was brought on temporarily to manage McMorris Rodgers’ whip operation, according to sources, and has since left the congresswoman's office. Neither Sugasa nor Webber returned requests for comment.
A source familiar with the inquiry said the OCE complaint originated from a former employee.
"The complaint to the OCE was made by a former disgruntled employee, Todd Winer, who was terminated from the office with cause after McMorris Rodgers became conference chair[woman], and she decided not to choose him for the communications director position at Conference," the source said.
Winer is now communications director to Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, R-Idaho, who helped orchestrate a failed coup against Boehner during the speakership election of 2013. He did not return calls requesting comment.
Elliot Berke, an attorney for McMorris Rodgers, said that ethics reviews are a “rite of passage” for members of Congress and that the review should not be viewed as an assumption of guilt.
“The Congresswoman and her office cooperated fully with the OCE during its inquiry and have already begun assisting the Committee with its review. We are confident that the Committee will ultimately find that the allegations were baseless and that her office always followed all laws, rules and standards of conduct,” he said.
McMorris Rodgers spent more than $70,000 in legal fees late last year, according to a report in USA Today .
Although it is not allowed, official staffers often engage in campaign activities on official time, said Meredith McGehee, policy director of Campaign Legal Center, who has worked with House ethics for more than two decades. She said the line is “very blurred, repeatedly,” but does not often become public. As a result, the ethics rules of leadership elections are largely untested.
“This kind of arcane comingling of official and political money in an internal race is generally kept in a very dark place. There’s no sunlight, there’s no transparency, there’s very little accountability,” she said. “Most offices don’t keep time sheets and rarely has the ethics committee gone down this path doing any kind of, if you will, auditing activities.”
If it sees fit to, the House Ethics Committee can empanel an investigative subcommittee to further review the allegations.