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Posted at 2 p.m. on June 17, 2014
Q. I am a staffer for a member of the House and I have a question about restrictions on campaign contributions. I saw that Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, was under investigation for accepting campaign contributions from employees of his congressional office. Generally, I know that this is not OK, but I don’t really understand why. It seems to me that congressional staffers are among those who would most want to donate to members’ campaigns. I know I’d like to donate to my member’s campaign. He could use it, and I believe in him. Why can’t I donate?
A. Last week, the House Committee on Ethics published a March report by the Office of Congressional Ethics concluding that there is substantial reason to believe that Rep. Steve Stockman broke the law by accepting contributions from donors who were employed by his congressional office at the time the contributions were made. The OCE is an independent, entity created in 2008, to screen allegations of ethics violations for potential review by the House Ethics Committee. When the OCE refers a matter to the ethics committee, the committee must determine whether to pursue its own investigation. Unless the committee elects to dismiss the matter, committee rules typically require it to publish the OCE investigative report while proceeding with its own further investigation.
The OCE report cites several potential violations of federal statutes and House rules, but your question concerns campaign contributions from congressional staff. According to the report, in February 2013, Stockman’s campaign committee received contributions from two employees of his congressional office. One was a director of special projects, and the other a special assistant. Stockman’s campaign committee, the report stated, filed Federal Election Commission reports first identifying the contributions as being made by family members of the employees — the father of the director of special projects and the mother of the special assistant. After an ethics advocacy group raised questions about the contributions, Stockman’s campaign filed two amended reports, the first attributing the contributions to the congressional employees themselves, and the second stating that the contributions had been refunded to the employees.
The report also alleges that Stockman’s office offered shifting and conflicting explanations to the OCE. Ultimately, in a January 2014 letter to the OCE, Stockman stated the employees were not in fact employed by Stockman’s congressional office when they made the contributions because they resigned before making the contributions, and then re-joined Stockman’s congressional office the next day. The allegations in the OCE report are of course just that, allegations. It will be for the ethics committee to draw its own conclusions about the evidence.
So, what’s wrong with campaign contributions to one’s employing member? Well, as it turns out, they are a federal crime. 18 U.S.C. § 603 states: “It shall be unlawful for an officer or employee of the United States … to make any contribution … to any Senator or Representative in … Congress, if the person receiving such contribution is the employer or employing authority of the person making the contribution.” In short, if you work in the congressional office of a member, you can’t donate to your boss’ re-election campaign.
According to the House ethics manual, the prohibition on contributions to one’s employing member is “absolute.” It applies “even if the contribution was entirely unsolicited and the employee genuinely wishes to make the contribution.” This means House employees may not even purchase a ticket to a fundraiser by their member’s campaign.
The ban has its roots in a host of longtime restrictions upon political activity by federal employees, such as the Hatch Act of 1939 — “An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities.” While the restrictions have been eroded over the years by court challenges and legislative action, the ban on contributions to the campaign of a staffer’s employing member remains.
And, the stakes are serious. An illegal contribution to one’s employing member is not just an ethics violation. It’s a crime, punishable by up to three years in prison. So, as much as your member’s campaign may need a financial boost, it’s probably not worth prison time. Perhaps there are other ways you can help.
C. Simon Davidson is an attorney with the law firm McGuireWoods. Submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice.