WASHINGTON — At least 39 members of Congress have engaged in the controversial practice of paying their spouses, children or other relatives out of campaign funds, or have hired companies in which a family member had a financial interest, records and interviews show.
House campaign funds have paid more than $3 million to lawmakers' relatives over the last two election cycles, records show.
The practice is not illegal but has come under new scrutiny following reports that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's wife and daughter had received hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2001 from his political action and congressional campaign committees. It also comes after disclosures that relatives of members of Congress have been hired by special interests as lobbyists or consultants.
Lawmakers are barred from putting relatives on their congressional payrolls, but they can pay them to work on their campaigns as long as the family member does bona fide work and isn't paid significantly more than the market rate.
The bipartisan practice has been increasingly criticized by government watchdogs and members of Congress.
"Instinctively, it doesn't pass the smell test for me, and I don't think it would for my constituents," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). LaHood said he had never employed relatives and thought the practice was wrong.
"Public service should not be a way to build a family fortune," said Celia Wexler, vice president for advocacy at Common Cause.
Many lawmakers who have hired relatives say their motivation is confidence, not profit.
"I need a campaign manager I can trust," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), whose wife, Rhonda, is now paid $40,000 a year to run his campaign. Over the last four years, she has received $114,894, records show.
DeLay, a Texas Republican, has defended the payments to his wife, Christine, and his daughter, Danielle DeLay Ferro, saying his family members provided valuable service to his campaign. They received $473,801 over the last two election cycles, records show.
His daughter has managed some of his recent congressional campaigns and has worked as a fundraiser for his political action committee, and his wife provides "strategic guidance" for the political action committee.
The Times developed a list of names of relatives and businesses owned by relatives on campaign payrolls from interviews, news accounts and personal financial disclosure reports. Campaign reports do not have to disclose whether recipients of funds are related to a candidate, so The Times' list is most likely incomplete.
The Times analyzed Federal Election Commission data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that researches campaign finance issues. The analysis, which covered 2001 through 2004, did not include such items as reimbursements for travel or other routine campaign expenses.
Among the recipients of the largest payments were members of DeLay's family and those of Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy). Pombo paid his wife and brother $357,325 from his political fund over the last four years for duties listed as bookkeeping, fundraising, consulting and other unspecified services, records show.
The amount paid to Pombo's family members in the last election cycle was more than his opponent spent on his entire campaign. Pombo declined to be interviewed.
Including Pombo, five of the top six congressional families in The Times' analysis of two election cycles were Californians. The campaign fund of Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) paid $251,853 to her husband's firm, according to the candidate's campaign filings. She was followed by Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood), $205,500; Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego), $154,504; and Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), $152,362.
Altogether, at least 10 lawmakers in the 53-member California House delegation have hired family members, according to records and interviews.
Rep. Pete Stark (D-Hayward) paid his wife, Deborah, $119,000 from his campaign fund over the last four years to serve as his campaign manager, records show. In the last election, she earned $2,400 a month as campaign manager and was awarded a $2,400 bonus.
"It's just a matter of paying her for the professional job she was doing," Stark said.
In addition, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) paid her son, a lawyer, $130,000 over four years to run her political action committee, according to her campaign filings.
A spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that she had not put family members on the campaign payroll.
No computer database was available to allow for a comprehensive search of Senate campaign expenditure records.
In the case of Pombo, 44, politics has been a family affair since the former ranch hand, butcher and truck driver first ran for Congress.