Rep. Michael M. Honda hired attorneys from two prominent Washington law firms and a California public relations firm to respond to a controversy surrounding a potential House Ethics Committee probe into improper coordination between his campaign and official staff.
The move by the California Democrat, disclosed in quarterly filings with the Federal Election Commission, comes after Honda acknowledged he has been cooperating with Office of Congressional Ethics investigators who are looking into allegations raised by a former staffer. The probe follows a September 2014 report by San Jose Inside that exposed internal emails between Honda’s longtime chief of staff, Jennifer Van der Heide, and his then-campaign manager about inviting campaign contributors to an official State Department roundtable. It raised questions about publicly salaried staff working on Honda's campaign in violation of House rules, and performing personal errands for Honda, like setting up his Netflix account while on the official clock. Honda paid more than $35,000 to Miller & Chevalier Chartered, a Washington-based law firm, and nearly $29,000 to the Brand Law Group, founded by the former general counsel of the House, from April to June. (Stan Brand, who specializes in government ethics and campaign finance matters, after more than three decades moved his practice to Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld after the period covered in the FEC report.) Honda also spent more that $7,000 on media services from Singer Associates, a California-based public relations firm that offers crisis communications.
“My staff and I have fully cooperated with OCE in its investigation related to allegations raised by a disgruntled former staffer," Honda said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “The legal expenses noted on my campaign expense report reflect charges associated with the investigation by the OCE. The FEC expressly allows for the use of campaign funds to pay legal expenses in connection with such inquiries."
In the weeks since OCE's review was transferred to the House Ethics Committee, Honda announced he will prohibit any official staff from volunteering on his campaign.
"It's a firewall that will not be breached," Honda stated on Tuesday, calling it one of the most aggressive staff-related policies in Congress.
Honda, who is seeking a ninth term in Congress, faces a rematch from former Obama administration official Ro Khanna. The Democrat narrowly lost to Honda in 2014, after an expensive contest for the Bay Area seat. Khanna's team filed an ethics complaint against the incumbent weeks before the election, accusing Honda of a “pay-to-play arrangement.”
The Ethics Committee is expected to announce its next step in the case by Sept. 3, which could mean launching a full-fledged investigation.
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