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.”

© Copyright 2010, Roll Call Inc. Reprinted with permission. Widely regarded as the leading publication for Congressional news and information, Roll Call has been the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. For more information, visit www.rollcall.com.


A Question of Ethics

What Are the Lessons of the Carib News Investigation?

May 11, 2010

Q: As a staffer for a Member of the House, one of my responsibilities is to administer our Member’s trips. In that light, I hope that you can help me understand the House ethics committee’s recent decision regarding Caribbean trips taken by several Members. As I understand it, the committee admonished Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) but took no action against all of the other Members on the trips. I want to make sure our office avoids any missteps in the travel process. What did the committee conclude that Rangel did wrong that the other Members didn’t?

A: Last year, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct began an investigation of trips that six Members took to business conferences hosted by the Carib News Foundation in 2007 and 2008. In late February, the committee released the investigation report. While the report stated that all six Members must repay the sponsor of the trips, it concluded that only one of them, Rangel, committed an ethics violation.

To find the distinction, the place to start is the rules. This investigation was one of the first test cases for travel rules adopted in 2007. Under the rules, an entity that employs lobbyists may not sponsor a Member’s travel for trips longer than one day. The rules also provide that a sponsor of a Member’s trip must certify certain information for Members regarding the trip, including that there are no sources of funding for the travel other than the sponsor itself. One purpose of this is to prevent entities with lobbyists from using other organizations as vehicles for paying for trips for which the entities are otherwise forbidden to finance. The Member then uses the certified information to request permission from the ethics committee for the privately sponsored trip. The committee approves or denies the request based on the information provided.

In this case, Rangel and five other Members took trips to Caribbean islands in 2007 and 2008 for conferences hosted by the Carib News Foundation. The trips were ostensibly paid for by the foundation. To gain approval for the trips, the Members all submitted information to the ethics committee stating that the foundation was the sole source of funds for the trip. As it turns out, the report says, this was false. Several corporations had allegedly paid for portions of the conference. As a result, the ethics committee report concluded that all Members who attended the conference must reimburse the expense of the trips. Whether there was an ethics violation turned on whether the Members knew that someone other than the foundation had financed their trips.

For five of the six Members, the report found no ethics violation because they were unaware that a source other than the foundation had paid for their trips. Rangel’s case was different. The report found that his staffers were aware of the other trip sponsors, and they even wrote a memorandum to Rangel discussing some of the other sponsors. The memorandum, which was prepared in advance of the trips, stated that the foundation was concerned that a corporate sponsor had backed out of the trip, but it also provided confirmation that another sponsor was “holding strong.” Rangel testified that he did not recall seeing the memorandum, and the committee ultimately did not conclude that Rangel knew about its contents.

It did conclude, however, that Rangel failed to “exercise proper supervision over his staff and office to ensure such information was properly reported.” The report stated that “Members are responsible for the knowledge and acts acquired or committed by their staff within the course and scope of their employment.” On these bases, the report admonished Rangel for an ethics violation. This provides perhaps one of the report’s most significant lessons. The report itself called it an “advisory for all Members, employees, and officials of the House that Members may be held responsible for the knowledge and official conduct of their staff.” As a staffer, this is a major lesson to take away from the investigation.

Yet, there is one other lesson that could be even more significant, and it applies not just to staffers but to people outside Congress as well. Be mindful of the risks of being involved in an investigation, even when you are not the one being investigated. While this was a Congressional investigation focused on Members, the individuals who could wind up in the biggest trouble are not even in Congress. The report concluded that two agents of Carib News Foundation made false statements to the government, in part by indicating on travel sponsor forms provided to Members that the only sponsor of the Members’ trips was the foundation. While the House ethics committee lacks the authority to discipline people outside the House, the committee can and in this case did make referrals to the Department of Justice, citing the agents for possible violations of two criminal statutes that carry heavy fines and long prison sentences. So, perhaps the biggest lesson of all is that when you are dealing with the government, tell the truth.

© Copyright 2010, Roll Call Inc. Reprinted with permission. Widely regarded as the leading publication for Congressional news and information, Roll Call has been the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. For more information, visit www.rollcall.com.