On Friday, in a unanimous ruling, the House Ethics Committee found that Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a member of the “squad” of progressive female lawmakers, violated campaign finance law.
According to Fox News, her decision “was one of bad timing and not ill intent.” Still, she’ll have to pay $10,800 for the violation.
Before we look at the report, though, I want to contrast Tlaib and a political candidate you’ve probably never heard of: Omar Navarro.
In 2018, both Navarro and Tlaib were looking to become freshman members of Congress.
Navarro, a Republican, lost a long-shot bid against the regrettably entrenched Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California. Tlaib, a Democrat, won a difficult primary in a safe Democratic district in Michigan by one percentage point and coasted home from there.
Both Navarro and Tlaib took advantage of a 2002 Federal Elections Commission rule that allows candidates to draw a salary from their campaign funds within reason.
The move was designed to allow less-wealthy people who weren’t already in politics to run for office. The law allows candidates who don’t hold federal office to pay themselves an amount either equivalent to their previous year’s salary or the amount they would make as a member of Congress ($174,000) — whichever is less.
Navarro was described by the Daily Breeze, a Southern California newspaper, as an “online marketeer and as an electronics salesman at a Target store.” Tlaib is a lawyer and was, at the time of her run, a member of the Michigan House of Representatives.
Navarro, from all appearances, followed the letter of campaign finance law. Tlaib did not, although that didn’t come out until later.
Guess who, in the immediate aftermath of the 2018 election, faced critical scrutiny for their decision to pay themselves a salary? That’d be Navarro, who the Daily Breeze reported took $24,583.04 from campaign funds as a salary.
“A candidate paying himself a salary is ‘highly irregular,’ said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, who thinks the vast majority of candidates would refrain from doing it for fear it would look bad to voters and potential campaign donors,” the Daily Breeze’s Kevin Modesti reported.
“The practice is rare enough that, in interviews, several Southern California political professionals said they’d never seen it done before and exhibited confusion about whether it’s legal.”
“I paid myself just enough. I didn’t pay myself an enormous amount,” Navarro said at the time.
And he did so within the strictures of campaign finance law, as far as the Daily Breeze could determine. Tlaib, a much more high-profile candidate, didn’t receive much coverage for taking that “highly irregular” step of paying herself a salary out of her campaign funds.
When she did, it wasn’t originally Navarro-esque in tone; the Detroit News, when casting an uncritical eye on the issue of Tlaib’s campaign salary in July 2018, decided to consult FEC spokeswoman Judith Ingram, who said the arrangement was “not unheard of at all.”
And remember California Common Cause, the group whose executive director called Navarro’s campaign salary “highly irregular?”
The Detroit News managed to get a quote from the executive vice president of the national Common Cause group, Paul S. Ryan, who said it was “not uncommon” and a “good thing” that candidates could pay themselves a salary. Apparently, there’s some breakdown in messaging in the Common Cause ranks.
The matter of Tlaib’s salary didn’t get a critical look March, when the Washington Free Beacon looked at the $45,000 Tlaib had paid herself during the course of the 2018 election, including $17,500 after the general election.
That wasn’t so much the problem — the Free Beacon report noted she’d left her job at a nonprofit legal firm, which definitely didn’t draw the single-malt-and-cigars kind of remuneration most legal work does — but her filings raised questions about why it looked like she continued to pay herself after the election was over.
The highly technical term that campaign finance litigators like to use for this is “big no-no.”
Tlaib’s case led to a complaint before the House Ethics Committee — and on Friday, the bipartisan committee ordered Tlaib to repay over $10,800 of the $17,500 she paid herself out of campaign funds.
The committee found that Tlaib had no “ill intent” by taking the $10,800. The issue, the final report stated, was “one of bad timing” and that Tlaib “engaged in good faith efforts” to work with investigators.
“These payments allowed her to forego her salary from her full-time employment so that she could fully participate in campaign activities,” the report read.
“However, because she received some of those funds, totaling $10,800, for time periods in which she was no longer a congressional candidate, those funds were inconsistent with FECA’s personal use restrictions.”
Nor was this a matter of making money, the committee found.
“The committee did not find that she sought to unjustly enrich herself by receiving the campaign funds at issue,” the committee’s report read.
“Indeed, during her campaign, Representative Tlaib received a conservative amount of campaign funds, well below the legal threshold for the maximum amount of salary she was eligible to receive; these payments allowed her to forego her salary from her full-time employment so that she could fully participate in campaign activities.”
“Accordingly, the Committee directs Representative Tlaib to reimburse her Campaign $10,800 within a year of the date of this Report,” it concluded.
There’s no evidence floating around to contradict that conclusion, not even of the fringe conspiratorial sort. Granted, there’s a curious irony that a campaign run by a lawyer ran afoul of these regulations — but that’s an issue of competence, not of willful noncompliance.
What the report doesn’t answer is questions about the rarity of the arrangement and the necessity of Tlaib taking the money in the general election.
The first can be answered by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit journalistic outlet.
In one of its “by-the-numbers” recaps of money in the 2018 midterms, the organization noted that 22 candidates for Congress took a salary from their campaign funds.
The Center for Public Integrity noted that “yes, the practice is legal,” while linking to an article that says it really isn’t that bad of an idea.
(Of course, it used names of other young Democrats as examples of why this is good, in particular Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Abby Finkenauer of Iowa. I’m sure the fact he lost had something to do with it, but Omar Navarro was nowhere to be found.)
This isn’t a particularly hefty number of individuals — which doesn’t make what Tlaib did wrong, per se, but given the public perception of the practice, she was in a position where following best practices would have been a good idea. She didn’t, so here we are.
The other question is the necessity of this. From the Washington Free Beacon’s report: “During the campaign, Tlaib said that she had taken a leave of absence from her job at the Sugar Law Center, a Detroit-based economic and social justice organization, and cut her hours down to seven per week.”
The question raises itself: After she won the primary, what campaign?
Tlaib won 84.2 percent of the vote, with no Republican challenger. The seat had long been a wholly owned subsidiary of the late John Conyers’ political empire until the long-serving Democrat was forced to resign in December 2017 after numerous allegations of sexual impropriety.
Point is, her election was more a coronation — and could have feasibly returned to work. One could make the argument this wasn’t the spirit of what this carve-out in FEC regulations was made for, even when a candidate follows the letter of the law.
Tlaib didn’t, of course. It’s not an issue of malfeasance. However, until the potential ethics violation emerged, no one was particularly critical of the fact she was paying herself out of campaign funds. If only Omar Navarro had been so lucky.
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