Over the last decade, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer has used her political action committee to galvanize supporters behind some of her top priorities — collecting petition signatures to ban drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or pressing for an exit strategy in Iraq — while steadily building a list of donors that has allowed the PAC to contribute more than $1.2 million to federal candidates.
By the senator's own account, the driving force behind the successes of her PAC for a Change — and the man she credits with building the donor list from 40,000 names to more than 400,000 — is her son Doug Boxer, a 45-year-old lawyer and political consultant whose firm has been paid more than $500,000 by her political operation in the nine years since mid-2001, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Doug Boxer's role in his mother's political operation and his consulting work in other areas have drawn scrutiny over the years. The heat has been turned up this year by Boxer's opponent, Carly Fiorina, who has argued that the senator has used the perks of her office to benefit herself and her family.
"She has become an insider who profits from her position, who profits from her access, and her family members have profited as well," Fiorina said during a recent appearance in Little Saigon. "And this [from] a senator who chairs the Ethics Committee. Her behavior should be beyond reproach."
Despite Fiorina's criticisms, employing family members to work on political committees is not only legal under certain circumstances but common on both sides of the aisle.
Boxer, who has spent months flaying Fiorina as a callous former chief executive who laid off 30,000 workers while collecting a multimillion-dollar paycheck from Hewlett-Packard, bristled at her rival's assertion that family members have benefited from Boxer's position.
"The lowest form of politics is attacking someone's family," the senator said when asked about Fiorina's charges after a recent event in Hollywood. "All of my family members work — because we have to work for a living in my family."
Boxer has vigorously defended her son's role with her PAC: "He's an expert, he's a lawyer, he's really good on campaign law," she said when asked why he was more qualified than anyone else. "I wanted someone I could trust. I wanted someone who understands politics. I wanted someone who could build up my online list, and he was really by far the best for it, so I'm very lucky. I'm fortunate that I'm one of his clients."
So-called Leadership PACs, like Boxer's PAC for a Change, are set up to collect donations from individuals, groups and other PACs — generally up to $5,000 from each donor per calendar year — and distribute contributions to other candidates and political committees. The donations they disburse are limited to $10,000 per election cycle — even if the recipient is the lawmaker's own campaign — so the PACs are mainly a mechanism for giving to others, in some cases to heighten the lawmaker's stature within his or her party. The organizations are not connected to the candidate's principal campaign committee and do not include any taxpayer money.
Lawmakers are banned from putting relatives on the official congressional payroll. They are permitted, however, to use campaign money to pay family members for what the Federal Election Commission defines as "bona fide" services at fair market value. Leadership PACs are even less regulated.
In employing a family member to work on a political committee, the three-term senator is in good company among colleagues in both parties. When the Los Angeles Times looked into the practice in 2005, it found that at least 39 members of Congress, including other California lawmakers, had used either their campaign committees or political action committees to pay spouses, children and relatives or companies with financial ties to a family member.
Meredith McGehee, policy director with nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, which monitors campaign finance issues, was part of an effort in the mid-1990s to get the Election Commission to tighten the rules on what she described as self-dealing transactions but, she said, that effort failed.
More recently, during the debate over ethics legislation in 2007, several senators proposed an amendment that would have barred the paying of spouses or immediate family members through political committees, but it was defeated. Boxer was the sole senator to vote "present."
"Always in politics there's concern about nepotism, that's why there are actually congressional rules that prohibit members of Congress from paying their relatives," McGehee said. "As a matter of public policy, it would be better to not have this practice be so common or even be legal. But apparently a large of number of members of Congress and the FEC don't agree."