Rep. Brad Sherman makes a point during a debate with Rep. Howard Berman and… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
It's the latest twist in an increasingly vitriolic campaign for Congress: Rep. Brad Sherman is going after payments made to the brother of his rival, fellow Democratic Rep. Howard Berman.
In a complaint filed Thursday with the Federal Election Commission, the Sherman campaign alleges that Berman vastly, and illegally, overpaid Michael Berman or his political consulting firm for campaign services during two decades in which the congressman faced only token reelection challenges and spent relatively little to reach voters.
It's not illegal to hire family members for campaign work, and some other members of Congress also do it. But the practice is controversial, and federal campaign laws require that the services provided be legitimate and in line with the usual cost, or fair market value, of the job performed.
In a report earlier this year, the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington examined campaign spending on family members, including Howard Berman's, and recommended steps to prevent abuses.
The Sherman campaign scrutinized Berman's campaign reports to try to determine how much was spent on voter outreach such as mailers and TV and radio ads, and how much had gone to Michael Berman or his firm, Berman & D'Agostino Campaigns. From the 1992 election season through 2010, the Sherman campaign found some $493,000 apparently spent on voter contact. Michael Berman, whose specialty is direct mail and other outreach, had been paid $741,500 during the same period.
Parke Skelton, Sherman's strategist, said the usual commission paid to a voter contact consultant in congressional or legislative races is 10% to 15% of the cost of the mail or ad, a figure confirmed by several consultants on both sides of the political aisle.
Sherman campaign manager Scott Abrams wrote in the complaint that there was "an overwhelming amount of evidence to show that Howard Berman has used campaign funds to enrich his brother … for services that were not actually rendered, or has paid campaign funds to Michael Berman well in excess of market value for 'services' in non-competitive races."
The Berman campaign called the complaint "ridiculous" and said it was meant to distract voters from Sherman's "dismal" congressional record.
"Michael is one of the most well respected and utilized political consultants in California," said Berman chief strategist Brandon Hall. "Countless candidates and initiatives, including Congressman Brad Sherman, have paid Michael for his professional services." California Democrats paid for Michael Berman's help in drawing political districts in past decades.
"Michael has been instrumental in advising Howard over the last 30 years and has been paid for his services," Hall said.
Sherman and Howard Berman are engaged in a costly, high-profile battle for the same San Fernando Valley congressional seat. Last year's redrawing of political boundaries placed their homes in the same district, and the state's new "top two" primary system allowed members of the same party to advance to the November general election.
The two former allies have increasingly attacked each others' records, styles and character, and it's not unusual for candidates to file legal complaints against foes in hopes of getting attention in the heat of a campaign. Skelton said his research shows that the complaint is valid.
Some seasoned consultants agreed that the amounts paid to Michael Berman seemed high for virtually uncontested elections but cautioned that the payments could have been legitimate and that fees for political advice vary widely.
Paying family members for campaign work can be "an easy way to abuse the system and get money into family pockets," said Republican consultant Richard Temple, who has not taken sides in the contest. "But Berman could say the payments had nothing to do with" voter contact. "It's a very arcane system."