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House OKs barring political pay to relatives

The measure would prohibit using donations to compensate lawmakers' relatives on campaign staffs.

July 24, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Under a bill the House approved Monday, members of Congress would no longer be able to put their spouses on their campaign payrolls, a practice criticized as a way for lawmakers to profit from political donations.

The action comes after a number of lawmakers, including Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville), have come under scrutiny for paying their spouses from campaign funds.

Doolittle's wife took 15% of the campaign contributions she raised for her husband, once earning $90,000 from a single event.

But dozens of other lawmakers from both parties have paid their spouses, children or other relatives out of campaign funds.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, found that at least 64 House members paid relatives from their campaign funds or PACs during the last three election cycles.

The measure, approved on a voice vote, comes as a broader overhaul of lobbying rules has stalled. But with Congress suffering from dismal job-approval ratings, Democratic leaders were anxious to showcase progress on ethics reform, an issue that was a central theme in their successful campaign last year to win the majority.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Campaign payrolls: A headline on an article in Tuesday's Section A about a House bill governing campaign funds said the bill would prohibit paying relatives of lawmakers with campaign donations. The ban would apply only to lawmakers' spouses.

"This legislation is one important way to begin restoring the public's faith that elected officials are working in the public's interest, and not in their own," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the bill's chief sponsor.

The measure could face a tough time in the Senate, where a similar proposal received a cool reception this year. But Schiff is hopeful. "I think everyone recognizes that the institution has got a problem," he said.

Doolittle, after barely winning reelection, announced that his wife's firm, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions Inc., would no longer serve as a paid fundraising consultant for his campaign. The congressman's northern Virginia home was searched by the FBI in April in an investigation related to Julie Doolittle's business, which did extensive work for imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The House measure was backed by government watchdog groups, including Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, which contended that campaign payments to spouses could become a way to get around the prohibition on converting campaign funds to personal use.

The groups sought to prohibit campaign payments to immediate family members, as well as spouses.

Schiff said that he wanted to focus, at least initially, on payments to spouses, "which very directly go straight into the officeholder's bank account." The measure would also require lawmakers to more fully disclose payments to immediate family members.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), one of the few members who spoke against the measure on the House floor, said it would create "another hurdle for anyone who does not have wealth to get here."

"If this bill becomes law, I will have to fire my comparatively low-paid but eminently trusted ... and currently only campaign employee," he said.

Gohmert's wife, Kathy, received $73,905 from her husband's campaign committee during the 2006 election cycle, according to the analysis by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Lawmakers are barred from putting relatives on their congressional payrolls. But relatives are permitted to work on campaigns, as long as they do bona fide campaign work and aren't paid significantly more than market rate.

The practice came under increased scrutiny after reports in 2005 that the wife and daughter of then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay had received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Texas Republican's political action and congressional campaign committees.

A Los Angeles Times analysis in 2005 found that then-Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy) paid more to family members in one election cycle -- $217,000 -- than his opponent had spent on his entire campaign.

Under the measure, spouses could still work on campaigns as volunteers and could be reimbursed out of campaign funds for legitimate expenses.

richard.simon@latimes.com

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