Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Politicians Divert Campaign Cash to Personal Use

As WTVF (Nashville) investigative reporter Phil Williams reports, Tennessee state representative Mary Pruitt has been using campaign funds to rent out campaign office space ... from herself, paying herself more than $11,000 rent in the last two years on a $28,000 property. (Check out the video links to the right.)

The office in question is a house in East Nashville. Other than being owned by Rep. Pruitt, it has very little going for it in the way of being a campaign office: it is boarded-up, the electricity is shut off, and neighbors say they never see any activity. Abandoned, in other words.

If Pruitt was paying fair market value for legitimate campaign expenses, that would be legal. But from all appearances, Ms. Pruitt's payments to herself are neither fair market value for the house nor are for a legitimate campaign expense. She is using her position as public servant to line her own pocket.

600 miles and a level of government away, another politician is engaged in the same brand of ethically questionable, and possibly illegal, self-enrichment. As Jonathan Weisman and Jeffrey Birnbaum report in the Washington Post, Congressman John Doolittle has paid his wife some $170,000 from his federal political committees over the last several years for fundraising.

Just as it is in Tennessee with state Rep. Pruitt, such an arrangement is allowed if Mrs. Doolittle is being paid fair market value for legitimate campaign expenses. Otherwise, big political donors could steer money into the bank accounts of officeholders, essentially putting people that are supposed to be public servants on their private payroll.

Fundraising seems a legitimate campaign expense, so the question is whether Julie Doolittle is getting paid fair market value. It doesn't look like it:

The Doolittle arrangement pays Mrs. Doolittle 15% of every donation received by Doolittle's PAC. Only one other member of Congress - New York Congressman John Sweeney - pays a family member on commission for campaign work, and Sweeney pays 10%, which Sweeney's spokesperson insists is "standard" in the industry. A national association of fundraisers has also said the Doolittle arrangement violates its ethical guidelines.

Making things worse, Julie Doolittle gets paid for every single donation received by Doolittle's PAC. An analysis by TheRestofUs shows that nearly 60% of the donations for which Julie Doolittle received a commission in 2004-5 came from people or groups who were already Doolittle donors. More than half the battle in fundraising is finding donors. So Julie D. got paid more than $120,000 in that period for doing half the work.

Further undermining the notion that the payments were fair market value are the committee assignments Congressman Doolittle has. In 2002, he won a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, a spot which guarantees easy campaign money from interest groups. Doolittle doesn't need someone to raise money - it gets thrown at him by all the wealthy interest groups in the nation's capital.

And yet, he pays his wife 15%.

It just doesn't wash. Just like Pruitt, Doolittle is using his public office to line his own pocket. That the payments are made to his wife changes nothing. It is ethically wrong, possibly illegal, and should be stopped.

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