By Reid Wilson - 11/03/09 11:00 AM EST
At least 17 members of Congress have paid staff in their official office to do part-time campaign work on the side so far this year, according to a review of documents filed with the Federal Election Commission and the clerk of the House.
With salaries on Capitol Hill capped by rules set by each Speaker, supplementing an employee’s wages with campaign cash can entice someone to stay, even if he or she could make more money by moving off Capitol Hill to a lobbying practice or a think tank.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), for one, “believes that congressional staff are underpaid given their high level of skills and their extremely hard work, so he doesn’t ask them to do campaign work without compensation,” spokesman Harry Gural said.
Frank has paid three staffers for work done for the campaign this year. Former Chief of Staff Peter Kovar, now at the Department of Housing and Urban Development; scheduler Maria Giesta; and legislative director Bruno Freitas are all on Frank’s payroll.
Frank makes the payments “because he doesn’t want to use public money for political purposes,” Gural said.
The practice is not illegal, but it has raised eyebrows among ethics watchdogs that warn the arrangements can lead to blurred lines of responsibility and, in some cases, staffers doing campaign work on the taxpayers’ dime.
“Any time you have a staffer that’s on both payrolls, they deserve greater scrutiny, because they are admitting they have two masters,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center. “It shows the loyalties of any particular staffers are not simply to the public that they’re serving, but to the ongoing political viability of their boss.”
McGehee agrees that paying staffers out of campaign accounts is a way to keep talented aides.
“Given the pay scales in Washington, it’s a realistic means of trying to keep good staff on the Hill,” she said.
But, she added, while laws against using public resources to conduct campaigns are strong, the ability to enforce those measures is weak. Only a few staffers are ever caught doing campaign work on congressional equipment, and avoiding crossing the line can be as simple as stepping beyond metal detectors and whipping out a cell phone.
“There’s really no meaningful enforcement mechanism to police whether or not campaign activity is being done on the public fund,” McGehee said. “The reality is nobody’s paying that close attention. It’s one of the advantages for incumbents.”
Staffers who work for campaigns must keep clear records of how their time is spent, according to guidance from the ethics committee, and members of Congress cannot compel their staff to assist their campaigns.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) pays Chief of Staff Greg Hill approximately $168,000 a year for his work in the congressional office. Hill also makes just over $1,300 a month — or more than $15,000 a year — from McCaul’s campaign committee.
In a statement, McCaul said Hill is compensated for work he does for the three-term Republican’s campaign.
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Reps. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) and Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) pay their chiefs of staff about $164,000 a year, reports show.
Kristi Way, Cantor’s chief of staff, has been paid almost $11,000 from Cantor’s campaign through the first nine months of the year. Vickie Walling, Tanner’s top aide, has made $3,600 so far, while Adam Brand in Kennedy’s office has taken home $5,500 from the campaign since January.
Walling, according to Tanner spokesman Randy Ford, “is compensated for part of the political work she does outside her congressional office responsibilities.” Spokesmen for Cantor and Kennedy did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment.
Other lower-ranking staffers have seen their incomes supplemented by campaign accounts. Reps. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) keep their communications directors on campaign payroll. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) has a scheduler on salary.
Funds have also gone to settle old campaign debts. Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) paid communications director Jared Smith $10,000 for work Smith did during the campaign last year. Smith is not paid a regular salary by the campaign.
Reps. Barton, Inglis, Tanner and John Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) also employ family members to do campaign work for them, as first reported by The Hill last month.
Eric Messinger and Steve Stoddard contributed to this report.