Report: Members Use Positions for Profit

Posted March 22, 2012 at 3:18pm

Updated: 6:50 p.m.

More than half of the Members of the House of Representatives have used their position to financially enrich themselves or their families, according to an exhaustive report released today by a nonprofit ethics group.

Researchers at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington spent the better part of the past year examining how Members have paid family members’ salaries from their Congressional and campaign accounts, funneled money to the political campaigns of relatives from their own re-election war chests and earmarked money that benefitted businesses and nonprofits associated with their family.

To compile the exhaustive 347-page report, CREW reviewed the personal and campaign finances of every House Member during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles and identified at least 248 Members who used their role in ways that benefitted spouses, siblings, children and other personal relations.

“Conduct like this reinforces the widely held view that Members of Congress are more interested in enriching themselves than in public service,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said in a statement with the report’s release.

Though most of the behavior detailed in the “Family Affair” report does not appear to run afoul of campaign finance laws or House ethics rules, it provides a glimpse of the perks Members can exploit to bolster their $174,000 annual salaries.

The report’s cover is a sketch of a lawmaker’s family sitting down to dine on heaping plates of cash, lobster and caviar. In the background, stacks of money tumble from an open freezer — perhaps a visual allusion to former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), who is currently appealing a corruption conviction after federal agents found nearly $100,000 hidden in the freezer of his Virginia home during a now-infamous raid.

Of the 82 Members who used government and campaign accounts to pay more than $5.5 million in salaries and fees to 117 different family members, CREW singled out several for having relatives who received particularly handsome sums.

Arlene M. Willis, the wife of Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), for example, was paid $512,293 by his Congressional office between 2007 and 2010. Though House rules prohibit Members from hiring their spouses, Willis is allowed to work in the office because she did so before the two were married.

Lewis’s Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Specht pointed out that although Willis has worked for the Congressman since 1979, House rules have barred her from receiving merit pay increases since the two were married in 1986.

Despite being “recognized and sought out for her expertise in running a congressional office by the Congressional Management Institute” the rules mean Willis “has a much lower salary than nearly all other chiefs of staff in the House,” Specht wrote in an email.

Other lawmakers cited for having highly paid family members included Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), whose re-election account paid his wife $238,438; Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), whose campaign committee paid or reimbursed six different relatives a combined $304,599; Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who paid her daughter and grandson a combined $495,650 for work on her campaign and in her Congressional office; and Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who is said to have paid more than $600,000 to a woman with whom he was romantically linked.

Direct payments to family members for work performed on the Hill and during the course of campaigns was not the only way that CREW found lawmakers lining their own pockets. Though Congressional candidates routinely loan their campaign accounts money during election season, the report identified several who have received hefty interest payments.

Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), for example, received more than $94,000 in interest during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles from a $150,000 loan she made to her campaign account in 1998. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) collected more than $31,000 in interest on a $125,000 loan during the same period. Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) has collected about $29,000 in interest on a $309,000 loan he made to his campaign account after telling the Federal Election Commission he wouldn’t charge any interest, the report found.

Other details in the report included three lawmakers — Reps. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Tim Walz (D-Minn.) — who reimbursed themselves and their wives for baby-sitting costs and two who received a salary from their campaign while running for office, Reps. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.).

The results of CREW’s research have been compiled in a searchable database that will be maintained by the website Legistorm.

A Kinzinger representative said the payments had been mischaracterized and were in fact reimbursements for supplies and other expenses.

“All of the items on the report were reimbursements and did not go toward a salary for Congressman Kinzinger,” a spokeswoman said.