Did Lawmakers Misuse Staff For Campaigns?

Democratic Reps. Jane Harman and Neil Abercrombie are quietly pushing back against a press report alleging that they used congressional staffers and resources in the service of their reelection campaigns.

The Washington Post has reported that a "disgruntled" former employee has accused Harman and Abercrombie of "forcing congressional staff to perform campaign duties and run personal errands on official time." Bolstering the allegation, the Post noted that the two Democrats spent "more than $2 million on their 2006 reelection campaigns but paid only $5,000 to campaign workers."

Does that mean the lawmakers must have been using legislative staffers for campaign work?

Not necessarily.

"It's suggestive, but not definitive," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). "That's not meaningful enough to draw a conclusion without knowing how they staffed the campaigns. If they use a lot of consultants they may have [the campaigns'] fully staffed." CREW recently called for an investigation into the practice of misusing office funds for personal or campaign purposes.

Sloan guessed that misuse for personal purposes--running errands and such--is probably more rampant than the practice of forcing staffers to do campaign work. Members of Congress routinely hire political consultants to run campaigns, send mailers, create and buy television ads and raise funds. Those consultants then hire staff. Therefore, aides to Harman and Abercrombie say, just because specific staff expenditures don't show up on disclosure forms doesn't mean that a candidate forced office workers and interns to stuff envelopes and knock on doors. (Neither Harman nor Abercrombie would comment, not interested in raising the profile of the issue.)

In many campaigns, there simply are no staffers aside from the consultants. "It's an issue of semantics," said Roy Behr, a consultant who worked on Harman's campaign.

Harman's expenditure report shows that she relied heavily on consultants in 2006. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, she paid $3,880 to Blackrock Associates, which does Web design; $136,438 and $30,614 to two fundraising outfits, the Bonner Group and Integrity Partners & Associates, respectively; $20,125 to Burnside & Associates, which does political field work; $69,218 to Progressive Strategy Partners for political outreach to elected officials and community organizations; and $7,860 to Star Mailing Services.

These firms have their own employees and don't need to rely on congressional office workers.
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