Costello Seeks Ethics Advice

Posted July 23, 2008 at 6:40pm

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) said Wednesday he will ask the House ethics committee whether he may continue to seek earmarks for a community college in his district after his wife was named president of the school last week.

Costello and his wife, Georgia Costello, both attended Southwestern Illinois College, which used to be known as Belleville Area College, and Rep. Costello has previously been given the school’s Distinguished Alumni Award. He has steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal projects to the campus over the years and he nominated the school’s director of Programs and Services for Older Persons to a 2005 White House Conference on Aging.

In 2000, Costello presented the college with a ceremonial check for $900,000 to celebrate a federal grant for a new building for the same seniors programs, and said he would “try to persuade the government to provide more money in the future,” according to local news reports.

In December, Costello visited the campus and issued a statement saying, “I am committed to doing everything I can to invest our tax money here at home to expand programs like the Foster Grandparents program … and the senior companion program,” both run out of SWIC with federal support.

Costello’s office initially said that Georgia Costello’s job shouldn’t have an impact on the Congressman’s role. “I would say that we do not anticipate a change in the relationship with the college,” spokesman David Gillies said.

But Costello later told Roll Call that he plans to seek guidance from the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct before deciding how to proceed.

“I don’t believe that the college should be penalized because my wife is the new president,” Costello said, but “we are writing to the ethics committee to get an advisory opinion on that.”

Costello pointed out that he has regularly pursued federal funding for other colleges in his district as well, and that “it would be unfair of me to single out that college” and refuse to support its federal funding requests simply because of his wife’s position there. “I think I should treat every college equally.”

He also argued that his wife would see no financial benefit from any earmarks to the school, so she may not be covered by House rules prohibiting Members from seeking earmarks that provide a financial benefit to themselves or their family members. “My wife has a contract … and her contract and compensation are not going to change.”

But some ethics experts said that with his wife at the helm, any earmarks Costello pursued for SWIC would be suspicious.

“Clearly, getting earmarks for your spouse’s employer really runs afoul of what Congress was intending to do with the transparency rules last year,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of programs Taxpayers for Common Sense. Even if Georgia Costello does not see a direct financial benefit from an earmark to the college, Ellis said, “if it is not over the line, it is clearly in a gray area abutting the line, and this is where Members of Congress need to rise above. … You get elected to public office, you need to rise to the status of that office and ensure that you are above reproach.”

Other Members of Congress have provided earmarks to colleges that employed their spouses. Most recently, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) attacked his primary opponent, Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), for providing about $2 million in grants to Rutgers University when his wife was a dean there. But the ethics committee approved Andrews’ earmarks, arguing that it did not have a “direct and foreseeable effect” on his wife’s compensation.

Rep. Costello said he had no role in the college’s decision to hire his wife. Georgia Costello is a former junior high school principal and served five years as the assistant superintendent of the St. Clair County Regional Office of Education, which provides “educational support service, programs, and resources to the k-12 schools” in the county, according to its Web site.

Her predecessor, Elmer Kirchoff, had a similar résumé when he took the job, having also worked at the county Office of Education, as well as at other regional school districts.