Q: I am a staffer in the district office of a Member of the House.
In my spare time, I also volunteer on the Member’s re-election campaign. The
campaign issued me a cell phone, which I typically use for all types of calls,
whether related to the campaign or to my official work in his district office.
Last week, while in the Member’s district office, I received a call on my cell
phone from our campaign manager. We spoke for about a half-hour regarding
planning for upcoming campaign events. When I got off the phone, a lawyer in our
district office chastised me for violating House ethics rules. He said I had to
leave the office to have such a call. I don’t think that’s right. My
understanding is that I can use a campaign cell phone for both official and
campaign purposes. Besides, it was raining! Who’s right?
A: Although there is no general prohibition against staffers working
on campaigns in their spare time, doing so can be risky. It brings into play a
whole host of ethics rules about which staffers who don’t work on campaigns
generally need not worry. Your question implicates two sets of rules in
particular that happen to be mirror images of one another. One governs the use
of campaign resources for official purposes. The other governs the use of
official resources for campaign purposes. Under the first set of rules, you are
OK. On the second set, however, you hit a snag. In fact, the attorney appears to
Let’s start with the restrictions on using campaign resources for official
purposes, which appear in House Rule 24 and a federal statute: 2 U.S.C. 59e.
Broadly, those rules provide that Members must pay official expenses from their
office account, and that they may not maintain a separate “unofficial office
account.” When these rules were originally established, one of their purposes
was to erect a wall such that campaign funds could be used only for campaign
purposes, and official allowances could be used only for official purposes.
Since that time, however, the rules have been amended to allow the use of
campaign funds for certain official purposes, so as to maintain the spirit of
the original rules while alleviating inconveniences Members experienced under
The restrictions on the use of campaign funds for official purposes now apply
only to five main categories: (1) official mail or other communications, (2)
official employee salaries, (3) House office space, (4) furniture and (5)
equipment and any associated information technology services. The rule
explicitly exempts “handheld communications devices.” This the House ethics
manual defines to include cell phones, BlackBerrys and associated communications
services. Therefore, you are right that it was OK for the campaign to issue you
a cell phone that you use for both campaign and official purposes.
However, you’re not out of the woods yet. This is because of the other set of
rules that is relevant here — the ones requiring that official resources be used
only for official business of the House. Under these rules, with limited
exceptions, official resources may not be used for political or campaign
purposes. The House ethics manual states that this is based on the principle
that “government funds should not be spent to help incumbents gain re-election.”
House offices are one of the primary types of official resources that Members
and staffers may not use for campaign business. This includes not only offices
on Capitol Hill, but also Members’ offices in their districts, like the one
where you work. The manual lists examples of activities that, under this
prohibition, may not take place in your office: solicitation of contributions;
drafting campaign speeches, press releases or other literature; preparation of
Federal Election Commission reports; creation or issuance of a campaign mailing;
and campaign meetings. In fact, the House ethics manual specifically addresses
your exact situation. It states: “Even though a cellphone or BlackBerry is paid
for with campaign funds, it may not be used to make or answer campaign- related
calls, or to send or respond to e-mails or campaign matters, while the user is
in a House room or office.” Therefore, while there is nothing wrong with using
your cell phone for both campaign and official purposes, you may not use it for
campaign purposes when you are in your district office. To conduct such calls,
you must leave the office, raining or not.
I’ve written before that compliance with ethics rules requires close
attention. For staffers who work on Members’ campaigns, there is something else
that might help them comply — an umbrella.
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