Ethics Report Highlights Thin Wall Between Congress and Campaigns
The House Ethics Committee issued a report last month with evidence that campaign donors were offered one-on-one meetings with Members of Congress, that senior Congressional staff participated in nearly every fundraising activity a Member conducted, and that a lobbyist discussed both a legislative concern and a fundraising event with a Member’s chief of staff.
The committee found nothing wrong with any of it.
Although the House Ethics Manual forbids the use of official resources to support campaign or political activities, the case of the three lawmakers who came under scrutiny demonstrates how closely intermingled those activities can sometimes be.
Last month, the Ethics Committee issued a report on the fundraising efforts of Reps. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), Tom Price (R-Ga.) and John Campbell (R-Calif.) and concluded that, contrary to the judgment of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, “each Member’s fundraising activities raised no appearances of impropriety. Nor did they violate any law or other applicable standards of conduct in connection with their fundraising activities.”
The OCE, reviewing the same facts, had concluded that some of the fundraising activities the Members had engaged in “gave the appearance that special treatment or access was provided to donors or that contributions were linked to an official act.”
The conflicting conclusions highlight the ongoing dispute between the external OCE, which has no authority to punish Members of Congress, and the internal House Ethics Committee, which does. But perhaps most noteworthy about the case is the detailed account of the activities the Ethics Committee considers permissible.
The Ethics Committee found that the Members maintained sufficient distance between fundraising and legislative activities because they each had professional fundraisers. “These fundraising consultants had no interaction whatsoever with the three Members or their legislative staff on legislative activities.”
However, the committee’s report shows just how close the interaction can be between Members’ Congressional offices and their fundraising operations.
For example, the committee report includes e-mails from Crowley’s fundraising consultant thanking a financial industry lobbyist “for helping out Crowley for Congress and JOE PAC” and offering times and dates when the Congressman is available for a one-on-one meeting. Similarly, a fundraiser for Campbell sent an e-mail to a corporate donor asking for a contribution and noting that “Congressman Campbell wanted me to see if you are available to do a 1-on-1 coffee or lunch with him. He prefers these to big events. Is there any way you can do $1k or even $500 to help him out?”
The invitation included a broad window of times the Congressman would be available during two weeks Congress was in session.
In an interview with Roll Call, Campbell spokesman Chris Bognanno defended the meetings, saying “these coffees are not just one-on-one and the vast majority are not with donors — the Congressman likes coffee. He likes to go to coffee houses and drink coffee.” The meetings “are both of an official nature and of a political nature. … They are one-on-one or two-on-one or a group will come and talk to him” about an issue, and on some occasions “there are some that are fundraising that are set up with the fundraiser.”
Campbell’s chief of staff told the OCE that the names of people who are attending fundraising events are included on the Congressman’s office calendar, which is accessible to all staff members. Bognanno said that is simply a fact of life for the Congressional office — that at all times, the office needs to know where he is and whom he is meeting with.
A legislative assistant in Campbell’s office told the OCE that he saw events listed on the calendar and would attend when he was interested, mostly for “personal career reasons.”
In each of the cases the Ethics Committee report examines in detail, the Member’s chief of staff is the point person for the fundraising consultants and staff members appear to be regular participants in the fundraising activities. But the offices all contended that the contact between the chief of staff and the fundraiser involved only the scheduling of events and the Member’s time.
Price’s and Crowley’s offices declined to discuss the Ethics Committee report with Roll Call, but the three Members defended their activities that were included in the report.
For example, Price’s chief of staff told OCE that he regularly attends Price’s fundraisers and occasionally has contacted donors to ask for contributions, but all on his personal time as a volunteer. A summary of his interview with the OCE says the staffer “has solicited individuals in person and over email. The Congressman does not instruct the witness as to who to solicit. The witness attends pretty much all of Representative Price’s fundraisers held in Washington, DC. His role at the fundraisers is mostly just to drive. The Congressman has never asked the witness to attend a fundraiser.”
Price’s lawyer said in a letter to the OCE that the staffer attends the events “for the limited purpose of staffing Representative Price.”
Price’s lawyer also said “legislative staff members play no role in the planning of fundraising events and do not solicit contributions or attend fundraising events.” The chief of staff is not included in the category of “legislative staff” because he does not have primary responsibility for legislation in the office.
In one case, Crowley’s fundraising consultant sent an e-mail to a financial industry lobbyist to extend an invitation to a fundraising event, saying the message “was a follow up to a conversation you had” with Crowley’s chief of staff. Two weeks later, the same lobbyist exchanged e-mails with the chief of staff about a provision in the financial services reform bill.
The Ethics Committee ultimately concluded that whatever the appearances of any of these interactions, there was no way to conclude that Members had exchanged official favors for campaign donations — and, specifically, there was no evidence of a connection between the Members’ votes on the 2009 financial reform bill and the fundraising activities involving financial industry lobbyists around the time of the vote.