House

Cawthorn hit with new ethics complaint filed by rival PAC

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) has been hit with a new ethics complaint by a political action committee seeking to unseat him that hits the embattled lawmaker with a host of accusations.

The complaint mentions recent controversies surrounding the embattled 26-year-old freshman lawmaker, including his twice being found with a loaded gun at airport security and his promotion of a cryptocurrency. 

It also raises concern about alleged gifts to his congressional office scheduler who is his distant cousin, but their longtime personal friendship and other exceptions to House rules governing gifts make the situation murky.

The complaint was filed with the Office of Congressional Ethics on Wednesday by the anti-Cawthorn American Muckrakers PAC, commonly known as Fire Madison, and comes less than three weeks before Cawthorn’s May 17 primary where he is confronting several challengers. 

Cawthorn is casting news of recent scandals as part of a “coordinated drip campaign,” and is criticizing some recent attacks for focusing on salacious videos and images rather than policy. A video included in the ethics complaint, first reported by the Daily Mail, showed Cawthorn with his scheduler in a car speaking about suggestive topics in an exaggerated accent.

“Digging stuff up from my early 20s to smear me is pathetic,” Cawthorn tweeted on Friday. “At least be consistent with your attack instead of changing the focus every time. A campaign based on nothing but slander and personal attacks is a campaign that lacks a true sense of how to save the country from the leftists.”  

David Wheeler, president of the anti-Cawthorn PAC, said that he tries to put out information that he receives about Cawthorn as quickly as possible. His group was also behind the recent release of secretly recorded audio with a former Cawthorn district staffer who called Cawthorn a “habitual liar” and accused him of improperly firing her.

“The drip is facts,” Wheeler told The Hill. “I know you probably won’t believe this because you’re in Washington, but we do try to move things quickly out and not just sit on them for strategic purposes, just because we think it’s in the public interest just to get it out and let people figure it out for themselves.”

The ethics complaint points to two instances of Cawthorn bringing a loaded firearm through a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint: Once in Asheville, N.C.  in February 2021, and another time on Tuesday in Charlotte.

It then mentioned allegations that Cawthorn brought a knife onto school property four times. A local news report said that evidence that Cawthorn did so was inconclusive in some instances, and in another instance that he gave a pocket knife to law enforcement to hold.

Also flagged in the complaint is a Washington Examiner report published this week that said Cawthorn may have violated insider trading laws by promoting a “Let’s Go Brandon” cryptocurrency. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who has endorsed one of Cawthorn’s opponents, has also called for an ethics investigation into Cawthorn based on the report. 

Finally, the complaint raises concerns about Cawthorn’s financial and personal relationship with his scheduler, accompanied by screenshots of social media posts, Venmo transactions from years before Cawthorn took office, and records demonstrating that they lived together. It claims that Cawthorn gave his scheduler free rent, paid for him to go on trips, and lent him money, all without disclosing it. That constitutes a violation of House ethics rules, it alleges, but there is plenty of ambiguity about the situation.

Cawthorn’s scheduler, Stephen Smith, is his distant cousin. Cawthorn described Smith as “the grandson of my grandmother’s sister” in a 2017 deposition related to a lawsuit seeking insurance damages from his car crash – the crash that put him in a wheelchair.

Social media posts show that they have been close for years and went on overseas trips together before Cawthorn ever ran for office. In one 2019 Instagram post, Smith described helping Cawthorn with physical therapy, and said that Cawthorn had grown to be more like a brother than a cousin.

Cawthorn said in the 2017 deposition that the two were roommates, and a Federal Election Commission payment record showed Smith using Cawthorn’s address in December 2021. A spokesman for Cawthorn confirmed that the two used to be roommates, but said that they are not any longer. Cawthorn has not reported receiving rental income on financial disclosure reports, so it is unclear if Smith paid rent.

The complaint does not provide hard evidence that shows Cawthorn paid for Smith to go on trips, or that Cawthorn made loans to Smith that have not been repaid. Cawthorn’s office said an allegation in the complaint that Smith accompanied Cawthorn on his honeymoon was inaccurate.

Even if Cawthorn did provide large gifts to Smith in the form of housing and trips, a violation of House rules is not clear-cut.

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, government ethics manager at the Project on Government Oversight, told The Hill that any of Cawthorn’s gifts to Smith could be within the bounds of House rules due to exceptions that allow gifts from direct supervisors to employees, or exceptions that allow gifts based on personal friendship.

“There’s some ambiguity there that needs to be cleared up,” Hedtler-Gaudette said. “That’s exactly why you refer something to the Ethics Committee. Presumably they will check into that and they will compare what’s actually happened against the actual House rules around gifts.”

Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen agreed that gifts from Cawthorn to a staff member would likely not violate rules, but any failure to disclose loans could be an issue.

“Cawthorn is indeed required to disclose loans,” Holman said. “The other allegations of insider trading and other charges also have merit.”

Cawthorn’s hiring of close friends for his congressional offices may also raise image issues for him, though it is not prohibited by House rules. Cawthorn’s chief of staff Blake Harp is also a longtime friend.

“It you’re hiring your friends or you’re hiring your relatives, it looks like nepotism, patronage, to some degree,” Hedtler-Gaudette said, adding that such moves can “eat into the public view that, like, ‘It’s all corrupt and it’s all just, you know, cronyism.’”

-Updated at 5:32 p.m.

Tags ethics complaint Madison Cawthorn Madison Cawthorn North Carolina Office of Congressional Ethics Thom Tillis

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