Rep. Mike Coffman accused of violating House ethics rules

Kabul, Afghanistan – International Security Assistance Force commander Gen. John R. Allen, presents U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Armed Services member, Mike Coffman of Colorado, with a few souvenirs, Nov.21, at ISAF Headquarters. Reps. Rob Wittman of Virginia, Coffman, Larry Kissell of North Carolina, and Mike Quigley of Illinois, met with the ISAF commander in Kabul during their visit to Afghanistan. (U.S. Army Photo/Master Sgt. Kap Kim) (released)

Rep. Mike Coffman is being accused of violating House ethics rules for providing the National Republican Congressional Committee with his legislative agenda — including financial plans and budgets — in exchange for money and extra attention to his race in the 6th Congressional District.

The American Democracy Legal Fund, a group that defines its mission as holding candidates accountable for possible ethics or legal violations, filed the complaint last week with the U.S. House of Representatives Office of Congressional Ethics. It’s asking that Coffman and a gaggle of 22 other Republican be probed for using official resources for politicking and campaigning.

Republicans are hitting back, saying that the ADLF is part of a larger Democratic hit machine.

“This ridiculous complaint is by a partisan complaint factory and completely without merit,” NRCC Spokesman Zach Hunter told The Colorado Independent.

While Hunter himself is part of the GOP House campaign machine implicated in the complaint, his charge that the American Democracy Legal Fund is swinging along party lines is correct.

ADLF spokesperson Mary Jennings’ wrote in a statement, “As if the disarray in Republican ranks isn’t bad enough, now vulnerable Republican House members are literally selling their legislative agendas to a political committee for campaign cash.”

The ethics concern warrants a close look.

“Members of Congress are supposed to craft a legislative agenda that benefits their constituents, not auction their vote off to the highest bidder,” Jennings wrote.

Colorado’s largest progressive organization is calling on Coffman to end his contract with the NRCC.

“We’re asking for Coffman to immediately withdraw from the ‘Patriot Program,’ and apologize for once again putting his political survival above the interests of the people he was elected to serve,” ProgressNow director Amy Runyon-Harms said in a statement.

Coffman’s office had no comment on the charges.

The full letter to the committee is below:

The Honorable David Skaggs
Office of Congressional Ethics
U.S. House of Representatives
425 3rd Street, SW, Suite 1110
Washington, DC 20024

Re: Complaint against Representatives Stephen Knight, Barbara Comstock, Rodney Davis, Jeff Denham, Dan Benishek, Tim Walberg, Martha McSally, David Valadao, Mike Coffman, Carlos Curbelo, David Young, Bob Dold, Mike Bost, Bruce Poliquin, Frank Guinta, Cresent Hardy, Lee Zeldin, John Katko, Will Hurd, Ryan Costello, Elise Stefanik, Daniel Donovan and Mike Bishop

Dear Chairman Skaggs:

This letter constitutes a complaint against United States Representatives Stephen Knight, Barbara Comstock, Rodney Davis, Jeff Denham, Dan Benishek, Tim Walberg, Martha McSally, David Valadao, Mike Coffman, Carlos Curbelo, David Young, Bob Dold, Mike Bost, Bruce Poliquin, Frank Guinta, Cresent Hardy, Lee Zeldin, John Katko, Will Hurd, Ryan Costello, Elise Stefanik, Daniel Donovan and Mike Bishop, (the “Members”) pursuant to Rule 3(A) of the Office of Congressional Ethics Rules for the Conduct of Investigations. It has come to my attention that the Members have violated 31 U.S.C. § 1301 and House rules prohibiting official resources from being used for campaign or political purposes.

I. Factual Background

Publicly available reports indicate that the Members listed above have entered into a contract with the National Republican Congressional Committee (“NRCC”) and agreed to provide details of their legislative strategy with the NRCC in exchange for “special attention” and “campaign cash.” The three-page “Patriot Program Contract 2015” involves a commitment by the House Members to coordinate several campaign activities with the NRCC, including creating a “detailed finance plan and budget,” raising certain amounts of money for the NRCC, and setting certain spending goals. In addition, the contract requires participating House Members to disclose and discuss their official House actions with the NRCC. In particular, the contract requires House Members to “submit and present a written off-year campaign plan to the NRCC” that should encompasses the following:

Detailed, written legislative strategy that provides short-, intermediate-, and long-term legislative goals, including political justifications for those goals. Be sure to include local issues unique to the district or region. Complete a Patriot Policy Priorities worksheet to be used by NRCC staff to evaluate legislative priorities for the current Congress and to promote and advocate for those priorities where appropriate.

Note that the Patriot Program is designed only for current members of the House of Representatives; thus, the contract contemplates that the Members would have official resources available. In the contract, the candidates are referred to only as “MEMBER.” And to make it even clearer that official resources are at stake, the Members’ Chief of Staff is also listed as a contracting party and required to sign the contract separately. The Chief of Staff is referred to only using that title, and not using or referring to any separate relationship the Chief of Staff may have with a Member’s campaign.

II. Legal Analysis

Federal law requires that appropriations be applied only to the objects for which the appropriations were made. According to the House Ethics Manual, “official resources of the House must, as a general rule, be used for the performance of official business of the House, and hence those resources may not be used for campaign or political purposes.” The House Ethics Manual notes that “[a]mong the specific activities that clearly may not be undertaken in a congressional office or using House resources (including official staff time) are . . . the drafting of campaign speeches, statements, press releases or literature; . . . and the holding of a campaign meeting.” The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has further interpreted 31 U.S.C. § 1301(a) to prohibit the use of congressional office equipment—such as computers, telephones, and fax machines, office supplies—such as stationary and envelopes, and congressional staff time for campaign or political purposes.

The intent of the “Patriot Program Contract 2015” is for Members to use the official resources available to them to coordinate and detail their legislative strategies and plans with the NRCC. The contract’s reference to the “MEMBER” and the explicit reference to, and separate signature line for, the Members’ Chief of Staff, makes clear that the contract is intended to reflect the Members’ official role. In that context, the demand for a legislative strategy plainly contemplates the use of official resources to accomplish that task.

The House Ethics Manual provides that House employees may engage in campaign activities on their “own time, as volunteers or for pay, as long as they do not do so in congressional offices or facilities, or otherwise use official resources.” If the Members and their staff use legislative plans and strategies crafted during House working periods a

nd using House resources as required by the contract, they will violate federal law and House Ethics rules. Additionally, if the Members draft speeches, produce literature, or hold meetings on official time that are intended to be used to satisfy their obligations to the NRCC that too would violate federal law and House Ethics rules. Thus, it appears likely that the intent of the contract, and of the Members and their Chefs of Staff who sign it, is to flagrantly abuse taxpayer resources for partisan gain.

IV. Conclusion

This Office has jurisdiction to investigate any allegation that a Member of Congress has violated any “law, rule, regulation or other standard of conduct” in the performance of his or her duties or the discharge of his or her responsibilities. I therefore respectfully request that you investigate this matter promptly.

I understand that 18 U.S.C. § 1001 applies to the information I am providing.


Photo credit: ResoluteSupportMedia, Creative Commons, Flickr


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