OK to Use Campaign iPads for Official Work?
June 26, 2012
Reprinted from Roll Call (June 26, 2012)
Q: I am a staffer for a Senator, and I am hoping you can resolve a
question that has arisen about the use of iPads for Senate work. As I understand
it, the rules prohibit us from using computers for official Senate business if
they are paid for by our Senator’s campaign. I have been a staffer for years,
and this has been our practice for as long as I can remember. Others in our
office say, however, that it is OK to use certain types of computers for Senate
work even if paid for by the campaign. Specifically, they say that it is OK to
use campaign-funded iPads for official purposes. Is this right?
A: It is right. But I can understand your confusion. Until recently,
devices such as iPads had lurked in a gray area in the rules. It was not
entirely clear whether it was OK to do official Senate business on
campaign-funded iPads. Recently, the Senate Ethics Committee resolved that
ambiguity and confirmed that it is OK.
The rule in question is Senate Rule 38, which prohibits “unofficial office
accounts.” This means that Members and staffers may not fund official activities
with private donations, such as campaign funds.
On the other hand, it is permissible to use campaign funds for activities
that are “related to official duties or status” but do not qualify as “core
Senate functions.” The idea is that private individuals should not be paying
directly for official duties by Senators and staffers.
The challenge, of course, is to distinguish between activities that are
merely related to official duties and those that are actually core Senate
functions. Fortunately, there is official guidance on point. Specifically,
campaign funds may not be used for franked mail, employee salaries, office space
and equipment. Campaign funds may be used for other expenses related to Senate
The issue here is the prohibition on the use of campaign funds to pay for
Senate “equipment.” The Senate Ethics Manual states that campaign funds may not
be “used to provide equipment used in the performance of official duties, and
Members may not accept equipment of loans of equipment from any third party,
including any campaign.”
There is an exception, however, that permits the use of campaign funds to
purchase a handheld communication device (iPhone or BlackBerry) and its
associated information technology services. Under this exception, Members and
staffers may use campaign-funded cellphones in connection with both official and
campaign purposes. Before this exception was created, in order to avoid
violating the rules, Senators and staffers “suffered the paradoxical
inconvenience of sometimes having to carry duplicate if not triplicate
cellphones (Senate, campaign and personal),” states a 2002 interpretative
ruling. The exception was intended to end this inconvenience.
On the other hand, this exception does not extend to personal computers. This
is consistent with your understanding that historically campaigns may not pay
for computers used for official Senate business. According to the Senate Ethics
Committee, a “handheld communications device includes devices such as cellular
telephones and handheld digital assistants, but does not include laptop
The question here is whether an iPad is treated as a personal computer or a
handheld communication device for purposes of the rule. If it’s a personal
computer, Senate rules would prohibit using campaign funds to pay for an iPad
used for official purposes. If it’s a handheld device, it meets the exception.
Earlier this month, this question was addressed squarely in a “Dear
Colleague” letter issued jointly by the Ethics Committee and the Rules and
Administration Committee. The Ethics Committee issues guidance regarding conduct
by Senators and employees, while the Rules and Administration Committee oversees
the appropriate use of official Senate funds.
The letter states that “tablet computers, such as iPads and other similar
devices, may be purchased with funds from a Senator’s principal campaign
committee and used by Members and employees on a Member’s personal office staff
for both official and campaign purposes.” The reasoning is similar to the
reasoning in creating the exception for handheld communications devices.
Specifically, the letter states that it is “intended to provide Senate Members
and employees with the convenience of using a single handheld communications
device for multiple purposes (i.e., official and campaign), at no cost to the
taxpayer, without unduly intruding upon the Senate’s role in providing equipment
for Senate duties.”
If your Senator’s campaign decides to take advantage of this exception, or
already is, there is good reason to proceed with caution.
The Dear Colleague letter closes with a useful reminder about protecting
confidential information. Because campaign-funded iPads do not operate within
the firewall of the Senate Computer Center, “confidentiality and security are
not assured,” the letter says.
So, before using a campaign-funded iPad for official purposes, it might be
wise to brush up on the rules on treatment of confidential information and to
make sure the iPad is set up appropriately.
Either that, or just stick to games of Angry Birds.
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