Campaign Work Pays Off for Aides

Posted May 16, 2008 at 3:16pm

Correction Appended

Continuing a tradition that comes with each election cycle, a small number of top Congressional staffers will likely earn more than the Members they work for this year.

Congressional rules cap staff salaries below the pay of Members of Congress, and the highest-paid staffers are generally limited in the amount of outside income they can earn.

Nevertheless, Congressional pay records, campaign finance data and personal financial disclosure forms indicate that in 2006, a small group of senior staffers out-earned their bosses, generally by taking a brief hiatus from their Congressional duties (along with a small cut in Congressional pay) and diving into a lucrative stint on the campaign.

For example, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) earned a Congressional salary of $165,200 in 2006. Steven Paikowsky, who served as her chief of the staff at the time, took a pay cut from about $156,000 in 2005 to about $107,000 in 2006, went on part-time status in the Congresswoman’s office and earned an additional $171,500 as a campaign consultant for Wasserman Schultz and other candidates.

Eric Johnson, chief of staff for Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), earned about $149,000 in Congressional pay in 2006, according to payroll records compiled by LegiStorm. He also earned $62,000 in campaign income that year, for about $50,000 more in earnings than Wexler.

Neither Johnson nor Paikowsky broke any rules, in part because the limits on outside income are written specifically to provide staffers with opportunities to do campaign work.

In Paikowsky’s case, by going on part-time status and dropping his salary to $107,000, his Congressional pay was just below the $109,808 threshold at which outside earning limits kick in.

Johnson earned the maximum allowable $24,000 from Wexler’s campaign while still on staff in the Congressional office, but he then took a leave of absence for several weeks in the fall, earning $38,000 in campaign income during that period. The House Ethics Manual explains that any income earned when a staff member goes on leave without pay does not count toward the annual cap on outside income.

Wexler and Wasserman Schultz had no problem being out-earned by their staffers, their spokesmen said, and both offices emphasized that the arrangements were completely legal. “We made sure when we were doing all this that it was in compliance not only with the law, but also with the ethics rules,” said Jonathan Beeton, Wasserman Schultz’s spokesman.

Beeton also said there was no doubt that the taxpayers were getting their money’s worth from Paikowsky as a part-time employee. Paikowsky “has been involved in Florida politics for 30 years,” Beeton said. “To be able to retain somebody of that caliber on your staff is a huge asset.”

The ethics rules on outside income are far more complex than they appear, and some staff members who at first blush appear to have exceeded the outside income limits actually are in the clear.

For instance, Christy Casteel earned just more than $114,000 as chief of staff for former Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.) in 2006, according to LegiStorm data, and also served as a consultant to Baker’s Congressional campaign, reporting $100,000 in earnings through her consulting firm The Tricolor Group. The $114,000 income would put Casteel above the threshold at which outside earning limits would apply, but in her case, it appears that the limits do not apply.

Casteel explained that she intentionally had her Congressional salary set below the pay threshold but that a bonus given to her at the end of the year pushed her over. She said the House ethics committee told her that the bonus does not count toward her income for the purposes of establishing limits on other earnings, because that limitation is based on the “rate of pay,” not total salary.

Under House rules, staffers do not reach the income threshold, about $114,000 for 2008, until their Congressional salary exceeds that “rate of pay” — $9,500 per month — for three months. A staff member paid $9,000 per month would be paid $108,000 a year, safely under the earnings cap, and if that staffer received $5,000 bonuses in November and December, it likely would not trigger the outside earnings limit, despite pushing the total Congressional salary to $118,000 for the year.

“It was explained to me it was all right to take the bonus,” Casteel said. “I called every single time [Baker offered a bonus] to make sure I wouldn’t have a problem.”

Despite these exceptions, some staff members exceeded the limit on outside earnings and had to pay money back after being alerted to the problems by Roll Call.

David Wade, communications director for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), earned $117,000 in Congressional pay in 2006 plus “approximately” $30,000 in outside income from Kerry’s campaign and PAC. Alerted by the Senate Ethics Committee to the possibility that he had exceeded outside income limits, Wade paid back about $6,000. “A bonus inadvertently and unwittingly pushed me beyond the outside income cap and per the ethics committees’ instructions I returned the excess outside income,” Wade said.

Carey Parker, longtime legislative director for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), earned about $160,000 in Congressional pay in 2006, and reported on his personal financial disclosure for that year an additional $25,000 from Kennedy’s PAC and $31,000 from Kennedy himself.

Kennedy spokeswoman Melissa Wagoner said the $31,000 payment from Kennedy was a payment “personally from the Senator to supplement [Parker’s] Senate salary for exceptional work and long service.” Senate ethics rules allow Senators to pay staff out of their own pockets, and those payments do not count as outside income.

Wagoner said Parker subsequently realized that his $25,000 income from Kennedy’s PAC in 2006 slightly exceeded the outside income limit, and he reimbursed the PAC $220.

Thomas Sugar, chief of staff to Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), was also slightly over the income limits in 2006, earning $25,124 from Bayh’s campaign and PAC on top of his Senate salary of about $160,000. Bayh spokesman Eric Kleiman said: “This was an inadvertent payroll error. The moment it was discovered, Tom wrote a check [to the campaign] for $417.86, the amount of the discrepancy plus interest.”

Diane Dewhirst, a senior adviser to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was paid a base salary of $107,893 in 2005, which put her into the bracket where outside earning limits apply, but she also reported $56,100 in outside consulting income, about $32,000 more than the limit for that year.

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami told Roll Call, “This was a clerical error on the base salary that amounted to about $28 a month,” which pushed Dewhirst into the higher bracket. Elshami said that as soon as Roll Call brought the matter to their attention, Dewhirst asked the ethics committee for clarification and is awaiting word from the committee on whether she will be required to pay some money back or take other steps. Dewhirst did not earn more than Pelosi that year.

Among the staff members who have outearned their bosses in recent years without breaking the salary rules:

• Lloyd Smith, chief of staff to Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), earned about $96,000 in Congressional salary in 2006 and then took a leave of absence and earned an additional $85,000 working on the unsuccessful Senate re-election campaign of former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.).

• Beecher Frasier, chief of staff for Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), earned about $88,000 in Congressional salary in 2006 and then took a leave of absence and earned $101,000 working on the unsuccessful Senate campaign of former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.);

• Sherry Brown, state director for Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), earned about $90,000 from the Senate office in 2006 before taking leave and earning $132,000 from Lieberman’s campaign.

• Chris Riley, chief of staff to Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) returned $93,000 to Deal’s campaign earlier this month after being alerted by Roll Call that he exceeded income limits for several years.

Many top staffers who also work on campaigns have set their Congressional pay just below the threshold where outside income limits would apply and also avoid the requirements to file personal financial disclosure forms, so it is much more difficult to identify who is earning more than the Member they work for.

Correction: May 19, 2008

The article incorrectly reported that David Wade, communications director for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), had paid back money to the campaign after being “alerted by Roll Call” to the possibility that he earned more outside income than he was allowed. In fact, Wade had been alerted to the the problem by the Senate Ethics Committee and had resolved the matter before Roll Call inquired.