October 28, 2011 in Idaho

Idaho Rep. Labrador puts wife on campaign payroll

By The Spokesman-Review

BOISE - Freshman U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador has put his wife, Becca, on his campaign payroll with a monthly salary - a practice that, while legal, has drawn much criticism since a 2006 congressional scandal.

In 2007, the House voted to ban campaign payments to congressional spouses other than reimbursement for travel expenses, but the bill died in the Senate.

“There’s a lot of congressmen that do that, and actually they pay their spouses even more,” said Labrador, who began paying his wife, Becca, a $2,050 monthly salary in May to keep the campaign’s books; she’s currently the campaign’s only paid employee.

Labrador said he chose his wife for the job “because she’s the first one I trust most in the world. She’s the one handling all the money for the campaign.”

An attorney, he added, “I have had an employee steal money from me when I was in my professional practice, so I am more than careful.”

In 2006, the issue of paying congressional spouses came under scrutiny after then-Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., was discovered to be paying his wife Julie, a professional fundraiser, a 15 percent commission on all contributions to his leadership PAC and additional commissions on fundraising for his campaign, adding up to $140,000 between 2003 and 2006. He abandoned the practice the next year, and after being investigated in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, left office in 2010.

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo was among those who subsequently came under scrutiny from the press and watchdog groups for paying his wife, Susan, $78,514 between 2000 and 2006, for everything from organizing campaign events to driving the senator to them.

Crapo still pays his wife for campaign work for both his leadership PAC, the Freedom Fund, and his campaign, spokesman Lindsay Nothern said. However, his campaign finance reports for the past year show no payments to Susan Crapo; his PAC reports show she was paid $4,677 from Jan. 1 to July 31 this year, mostly for expense reimbursements and gift bags she prepared for donors.

“She is compensated for what she does do,” Nothern said. “There’s nothing illegal about any of it. … She gets paid to help with the campaign just like any other campaign worker would.”

Neither Idaho Sen. Jim Risch nor 2nd District Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson have ever paid their spouses for campaign work, though Vicki Risch has long been a top strategist for Risch’s campaigns.

Risch, through spokesman Brad Hoaglun, had a one-word answer when asked if she’d been paid: “Never.”

Federal Election Commission rules say members of Congress can pay spouses through their campaigns or PACs - though not through their congressional offices - as long as they provide “bona fide services” and the payments reflect the fair market value of the services, not more.

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a watchdog group that focuses on campaign finance and consumer issues, said the practice long has been common, but said, “It still raises ethical concerns, because that means some of the campaign money is going directly into the family pockets.” Those funds include money from PACS and lobbyists pushing for the members’ attention on pending issues.

“Sometimes you’ll see freshmen do this, frequently because they don’t really have that much money or widespread connections, so they’ll rely upon a close family member who’ll be a little more affordable than others,” Holman said, adding that they often discover later that it can be a political problem.

John Goodwin, Labrador’s chief of staff and designated campaign spokesman, said Becca Labrador has no formal title with the campaign, and works from home part-time, averaging about 20 hours per week, keeping the books. “She does the actual clerical work as far as getting all the checks in, keeping the accounting, disbursing the checks and filing all the paperwork and FEC reports relevant to it,” he said. “It takes up a good amount of time.”

The campaign also pays an election compliance service to check over her work and make sure all FEC requirements are met.

Of Labrador’s total campaign spending over the past year, since Jan. 1, $33,725 - 22 percent of the total spending of $152,677 - went either to Becca Labrador or to Raul Labrador, between her salary payments of $10,254, various expense reimbursements, and repayments of personal loans that Labrador made to his campaign; he’s now paid back all the $50,000 of his own money he loaned to his congressional campaign for his successful run for office, and his campaign has no debt.

Goodwin said the campaign hasn’t been active in this off-election year other than fundraising. “There’s no campaign staff,” he said. “The entire operation is so lean. … All those reimbursements are actually saving the campaign money and it’s being run very frugally.”

Simpson’s campaign reported paying $16,443 to a Blackfoot firm for accounting services since Jan. 1 of this year.

Declared Labrador, “We are the most frugal campaign in the state. We work hard and make sure that the people who contribute money to our campaign, their money’s used correctly and adequately.”

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