published Saturday, April 21st, 2012

Unethical, but not illegal

Members of Congress talk a lot about getting cleaning up Washington and eliminating waste and fraud, yet more than half of them have shared the largesse that goes with their job with family members. A new report by the nonpartisan watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, shows how members of Congress do it.

Eighty-two members of Congress -- including Representatives Chuck Fleischmann, Marsha Blackburn and John Duncan, all Tennessee Republicans -- have put family members on their payrolls for work in their campaigns or in their congressional offices. They may legally do so because there are no federal or campaign finance laws or House rules that prohibit such close nepotism.

Fleischmann paid his college-age son, Charles (Chuckie) Fleischmann, $4,652 from campaign funds for "wages for work done" on his 2010 campaign. Duncan paid his sister, son and niece a total of $7,600 for similar work. Blackburn paid her daughter $301 for administrative and fund-raising services.

That doesn't match the $43,000 that Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., paid her daughter for help in the 2010 campaign. Nor does it approach the familial indulgence of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who is still a candidate in the current campaign for the GOP's presidential nomination. The CREW report shows that he has paid over $300,000 since 2007 to seven relatives -- his brother, daughter, grandson, granddaughter and three other kin.

Hiring relatives is not the only way members of Congress provide financial aid to their family members, or themselves. Rep. Grace Napolitano, another California Democrat, charged her campaign fund 18 percent interest for the $150,000 loan she gave it from 1998 to 2006, when she dropped the rate to 10 percent.

Other members routinely funnel millions of dollars to various businesses where family members work -- for example, in consulting, media and accounting businesses. Still others use earmarks for funds that go to non-profit organizations where family members work or receive benefits.

The 248 members who take advantage of the legal laxity that allows these practices comprise more than 57 percent of the 435 members of Congress. That remarkable percentage reflects a prevailing sentiment in Congress that unethical practices and crony capitalism among their own families is all right, since it's not been made illegal under House rules.

There is a problem with all this, of course. It's morally offensive because it ignores the boundaries that most government agencies mandate for federal employees, and that most personnel codes apply for state and local governments. It also taints the standard of integrity that they should promote, not evade.

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