A member of the House Republican leadership team admitted Friday he distributed a tobacco PAC’s campaign checks on the House floor, but said he’ll never do it again.
Watchdog groups said the practice is legal but condemned it as outrageous, nonetheless.
GOP Conference Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he stopped handing out the checks after being questioned about the practice by two freshmen who’d heard about the handoff on the House floor.
“They were appalled by it,” said Boehner. “I thought, ‘Yeah, I can imagine why somebody would be upset. It sure doesn’t look good.’
“It’s not an excuse, but the floor is the only place you get to see your colleagues,” he said in a telephone interview from Ohio. “It was a matter of convenience. You make a mistake, admit it and go on. I just feel bad about it.”
Boehner, whose conference job places him fourth in the House GOP leadership, didn’t say which fellow lawmakers questioned him.
However a New York Times column identified freshman Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., as one of several lawmakers who convinced Boehner to find some other place to pass out the money from the PAC.
Boehner’s chief of staff, Barry Jackson, confirmed that report.
Jackson said the incident that offended Largent and unnamed others took place during the last week of June 1995, when time was running short for campaigns to close their books for the six-month public disclosure period.
“We were trying to help guys who needed to get their June 30th numbers up, their cash-on-hand numbers up,” Jackson said. “All leadership does this. We have to raise money for people and help them raise money.”
Boehner carried some checks to the House floor because that’s where he saw the needy incumbents, Jackson said.
He said Boehner recalled relaying three checks from the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. political action committee, but to be safe, was estimating there were about half a dozen checks. He stressed that no tobacco-related legislation was being debated at the time.
“It’s a common practice. He knew it was neither illegal or against the rules of the House,” Jackson said. “For five years he had seen members on both sides of the aisle come to the floor - which is where they see each other - to exchange information and sometimes hand each other campaign contributions.”
At the Center for Public Integrity, director Charles Lewis pointed to a paragraph in the House ethics manual that appears to agree with Boehner that no rule or law was violated.
“It can be argued that it’s within the rules,” he said. “But it kind of sticks in your craw. Philosophically, you would hope that nowhere would the members of Congress be more focused on doing the business of the American people than on the floor of the House and the Senate.”
Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said she, too, examined the law and House rules, and “as best we can tell there’s nothing that touches it. When they’re on the floor they can be literally handing out checks from the special interests.”
“It’s such an outrageous activity on the face of it that it illustrates the problems of the campaign finance system.”
Jackson said Boehner would support any effort to outlaw the practice as part of a campaign finance reform bill.
Boehner issued a prepared statement that referred to his role five years ago as ringleader of the “Gang of Seven” freshmen who pressed for strict ethical behavior from then-majority Democrats and insisted on public disclosure of those who had overdrafts at the House bank.
“As a representative who has proudly led the fight to clean up Congress and restore the public’s trust in this institution, I attempt to hold myself to the highest possible standard,” Boehner said. “The mere perception that my actions … may have been less than appropriate is unacceptable to me and is why I have not done it since, nor would I do it again.”