Ethics Committee orders Tlaib to refund campaign $10,800 for salary payments

Ethics Committee orders Tlaib to refund campaign $10,800 for salary payments
© Greg Nash

The House Ethics Committee is directing Rep. Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibTrump attacks Omar for criticizing US: 'How did you do where you came from?' George Conway: 'Trump is like a practical joke that got out of hand' Pelosi endorses Kennedy in Massachusetts Senate primary challenge MORE (D-Mich.) to reimburse her campaign $10,800 after concluding she improperly received salary payments in late 2018 when she was no longer a candidate.

Tlaib must refund her campaign within a year, but is not facing any further sanction from the panel.

The Ethics Committee released the report to the public two days after Tlaib, a member of the self-described "squad" of progressive congresswomen elected in 2018, handily fended off a primary challenge.

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The Ethics Committee found that the salary payments that Tlaib received from the campaign were inconsistent with Federal Election Commission (FEC) requirements, although it concluded that her "violation of the applicable restrictions was one of bad timing and not ill intent."

The panel said that it will consider the matter closed once Tlaib fully refunds her campaign, which she can make in smaller payments over the course of the next year.

"Based on its review, the committee determined that Representative Tlaib did not comply with the letter of the relevant laws and regulations governing her receipt of salary payments from her Campaign. The committee did not find evidence, however, that Representative Tlaib intended to unjustly enrich herself, and recognizes that she made efforts to ensure her compliance with the applicable requirements," the Ethics Committee said in its report.

The FEC allows non-incumbent candidates to pay themselves a salary from their campaign committees if they meet certain criteria. The salary is meant to help first-time candidates who aren't independently wealthy afford running for office full-time.

But the FEC rules state that the salary payments can be made until the date of the general election or until a candidate is no longer running for office. The campaign salary cannot exceed the minimum annual salary for the federal office the candidate is seeking or the income the candidate received in the previous year.

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The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent watchdog that reviews allegations of lawmaker misconduct and refers them to the House Ethics Committee, first began investigating Tlaib's salary payments in April 2019. Republican-aligned news outlets in March 2019 had been highlighting FEC records showing that Tlaib's campaign paid out $17,500 in salary disbursements after the Nov. 6, 2018, general election.

Only the House Ethics Committee, which is evenly comprised of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, has the authority to issue sanctions in response to misconduct by members of Congress. The Ethics Committee received a referral from OCE in August 2019 and adopted its report concluding Tlaib should reimburse her campaign on July 23.

Tlaib's total income in 2017 amounted to $129,357 from working for the nonprofit Sugar Law Center, a fellowship, and consulting work. Starting in May 2018, Tlaib reduced her hours working for the Sugar Law Center due to the demands of the campaign and was no longer receiving a stipend from her fellowship.

Tlaib “realized [that she] was going to have some issues paying [her] bills," according to the Ethics Committee report. Tlaib then began receiving $2,000 bimonthly payments from the campaign, which was below the maximum she was allowed to take in under the rules.

Campaign staffers had advised Tlaib that she would likely face political attacks for receiving a salary from the campaign, which the media reported on within a few months of her receiving them.

After the Nov. 6 general election, Tlaib received a $2,000 payment on Nov. 16 and $15,500 on Dec. 1.

Tlaib told the committee through her counsel that the Nov. 16 payment “make[s] up some of the difference between what she was entitled to receive for her service through Election Day . . . and what the campaign had previously paid her for services rendered through that date." However, campaign records showed that the payment was meant to cover the pay period from Nov. 1 to Nov. 15.

Tlaib and campaign staff interviewed by the committee said that the $15,500 payment in December amounted to "back pay" for work done before the election. But the committee said there was "a notable lack of consensus" on when exactly Tlaib and her campaign decided to defer her salary payments.

According to the Ethics Committee report, Tlaib said she had concerns about the campaign's ability to keep paying her salary after her primary election, which backed a campaign staffer's testimony that she requested some of the payments to be deferred until after the election "to ensure that the campaign had sufficient resources."

The Ethics Committee concluded that $1,200 from the Nov. 16 payment and $9,600 from the Dec. 1 payment did not comply with the campaign salary restrictions.

"There is some evidence in the record indicating that the senior campaign staff’s heightened awareness about the political risks associated with Representative Tlaib’s salary payments may have influenced the decision to defer additional compensation, and thereby, the disclosure of the additional compensation until after the general election. Such political risks, however, are inherent in the process and categorizing salary as 'back pay' cannot be used as an end run around the transparency required by campaign finance laws and regulations," the report concluded.

Denzel McCampbell, a spokesperson for Tlaib, said that the lawmaker is "pleased to have this matter resolved" but suggested the FEC should make its guidelines clearer.

“Representative Tlaib hopes the Federal Election Commission will issue updated guidance and clarify a well-intended rule that gives candidates like Representative Tlaib the opportunity to seek federal office," McCampbell said.

Tlaib is not the only lawmaker to have received a campaign salary in recent years. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Will Democrats attempt to pack the Supreme Court again? On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline MORE (D-N.Y.), a fellow "squad" member who worked as a bartender before winning election in 2018, also collected a salary from her campaign at the time.