A Question of Ethics

Avoid Campaign Work on Office Equipment

May 25, 2010

Q: I am an aide for a Member of the House with a question about the extent to which staffers may help Members’ re-election campaigns. One of my closest friends is working on my Member’s campaign back in our district. She is currently organizing a campaign fundraising event and has asked me to help compile an invitation list. I stayed at the office late the other night to put together a list of contacts from our office files that I thought would help and plan on e-mailing the list to my friend. I wanted to check before I sent the e-mail, though. Is there anything wrong with sending this information to my Member’s campaign staff?

A: Your question is well-timed. Campaign season is gearing up, so you are likely not the only staffer wondering about the constraints that the ethics rules impose on your efforts to support your Member’s re-election. In this case, it is a good thing you asked. I might hold off on pressing “send” until you consider the applicable rules. I think you will see why.

Broadly, your question implicates the general ban on using official resources for campaign purposes. The prohibition covers both the use of official equipment, such as House computers, and the sharing of official lists. The same rule exists on the Senate side. As the Senate Ethics Manual puts it, campaign activities should not take place “on Senate time, using Senate equipment or facilities” because Congressional employees and facilities are paid for with taxpayer funds. The House and Senate rules have their roots in a federal statute that requires appropriations to be applied only to the objects for which they are made. Appropriations made to House and Senate offices should be used for official House and Senate purposes.

According to the House Ethics Manual, the misuse of official resources is a “very serious matter.” Misuse implicates not only staffers who violate the prohibition but also their Members. The House ethics committee takes the position that Members are responsible for assuring the proper use of House resources in their offices, as well as their staff’s awareness of and adherence to the rules. Members must certify that all official funds have been properly spent. False certifications could result in civil or even criminal liability. Therefore, you should take this prohibition very seriously, as should your Member.

The House Ethics Manual lists some of the “official resources” that fall under the prohibition. The list includes Congressional office equipment and Congressional staff time. Note also that it includes work on any campaign, not just the campaign of a staffer’s Member.

In addition, the use of the official resources for nonofficial purposes also raises issues with rules set forth by the House Administration Committee in the Member’s Handbook. The Member’s Handbook describes the types of expenditures for which it is appropriate for Members’ offices to use official funds. The handbook permits reimbursement by the Member’s Representational Allowance only where the primary purpose of the expense is official and representational. Similar restrictions also apply to expenditures from House committees under separate rules administered by the House Administration Committee.

In your case, your use of an official House e-mail account to assist a campaign staffer raises the first flag. Your computer and your e-mail account were provided by the House. While incidental use of House equipment and supplies is permitted under the Member’s Handbook, that use is generally limited to personal, not campaign use, as the House Ethics Manual makes clear. In fact, the House ethics committee has stated that the use of an office fax machine to send out a campaign-related press release violates the rules.

That you plan on sharing a list containing contact information with a campaign staffer raises the second red flag. Depending on how you compiled that list and how the information is used, sending it to a campaign staffer could raise a number of issues. According to the House Ethics Manual, internal office files may not be used for campaign or political purposes. In fact, the manual says, office files may not even be reviewed for names to solicit for campaign contributions. Separately, the Member’s Handbook also bars sharing official mailing lists for campaign purposes.

The Senate Ethics Manual provides an illustrative example. In the example, an editor for a national party’s newsletter asks a Member for the names and addresses of seniors in her state so that they can be sent the newsletter. The manual states that the Member may not send a list drawn from Senate computer files. This is because Senate Rule 40 paragraph 5(c) prohibits the use of Senate computer facilities to produce mailing labels and discs for use “other than in service facilities maintained and operated by the Senate or under contract to the Senate.”

The bad news, then, is that the ethics rules might not allow you to help your friend as much as you’d like, particularly when it comes to using official resources. The good news is that you thought to ask before pressing “send.”


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