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Cannon staff's dual role spurs criticism

Published March 31, 2008 12:39 am

Workers on federal and campaign payrolls; opponents call it unethical
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

WASHINGTON - Taxpayers have forked over more than $75,000 to Nathan Rathbun in salary and reimbursements for his work as a field coordinator and caseworker for Rep. Chris Cannon's congressional office in Provo since January 2005.

During the same period, Rathbun also took paychecks from Cannon's re-election campaign totaling more than $90,000.

While not violating any House rules, Rathbun's situation - shared by several on Cannon's federal payroll - underscores what the Utah County Republican's opponents call an alarming crossover between taxpayer-paid staff and campaign workers.

"I think every taxpayer ought to be outraged that they have so many congressional staff also working on the campaign," says Jason Chaffetz, the former chief of staff to Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and a Republican challenging Cannon for the nomination. "It blurs the distinction between roles. It's highly unethical and I believe crosses the line of good public policy."

Cannon's congressional chief of staff, Joe Hunter, says the office is being over-the-top transparent in how each worker is compensated and there is no mixing of public and campaign roles.

A Salt Lake Tribune analysis of House office records and filings with the Federal Elections Commission reveals several of Cannon's federally paid staffers in Utah and in Washington have been paid by the campaign as well. That's a unique situation in Utah's federal delegation, where outside campaign managers typically run the operations.

Cannon congressional staffer Megan Faulker Brown, for one, has been paid about $95,000 from taxpayers since January 2005 while also taking about $58,000 from the campaign. That's in addition to Brown running a home business, The Sweet Tooth Fairy, a mail order or delivery bakery and candy shop.

House ethics rules prohibit congressional staffers from working on campaigns while on the clock for their official positions or on the grounds of House or district buildings. But staffers are allowed to help a campaign in their free time as long as they don't use any congressional resources.

Hunter, who also has taken $15,540 in reimbursements from the Cannon campaign since 2005, says the congressional office is acting legally and appropriately.

While refusing to name names, Hunter says other offices essentially hide the work congressional staffers do for their bosses' campaigns.

"The average Joe and the average taxpayer should frankly be more concerned by the possibility that they are not paid by both" the congressional office and the campaign, Hunter says. "Congressman Cannon errs on the side of transparency and disclosure and actually erecting the wall between campaign and congressional office that should exist in every office but frankly does not exist in every office around the United States."

Chaffetz doesn't buy it and Cannon challenger David Leavitt also is concerned about any mixing of congressional and campaign staff.

"The power of incumbency is enormous," says Leavitt, a former Juab County prosecutor. "I'm not here to [point] a finger at Chris Cannon because I frankly haven't looked at the numbers. [But] If there are people working simultaneously on his congressional staff and campaign staff, that would be in my mind extremely problematic."

Hunter insists the staffers do not do campaign work on congressionally paid time or vice-versa. But Cannon's office does not require the staffers who work for both the congressional office and the campaign to log what hours they work for either, as suggested by the House Ethics Committee.

Hunter says he personally ensures that they are being paid commensurate for their work and doesn't see a need for detailed logs. Last year, for example, Hunter says he took a voluntary cut in pay because he also was doing some work for a pro-school voucher group that paid him $8,000.

Hunter adds that Cannon constantly has his staffers check in with the Ethics Committee to make sure they are following the law.

Cannon is "something of a fanatic about that," Hunter says. "He drives us nuts to call Ethics."

On who's dime?

A call placed to Cannon's campaign office in Provo, located about one block away from his congressional office, was directed to Ryan FrandÂsen, who shuns the title of campaign manager but has been quoted in newspapers as such. Frandsen, who was paid as recently as last year as a field coordinator for Cannon's congressional office, said he was no longer on the federal payroll.

But Hunter says Frandsen must have been confused and is still doing some work for the congressional office. "He is part time in the congressional office," Hunter says, noting he kept Frandsen on the payroll because he has experience the office needs.

Hunter disputes the argument that campaign workers are receiving an advantage because if they also work on the congressional staff, they keep their health benefits; even a staffer on leave from the federal office retains those benefits, he says.

In another disputed point, Cannon has reimbursed several congressional staffers with campaign money for expenses such as telephones and office supplies, despite a recommendation from the Ethics Committee that a House employee "should not make any outlay on behalf of the employing member's campaign" other than travel expenses.

Rathbun, for example, received more than $3,500 from the campaign in telephone reimbursements in 2007, Brown got more than $2,700 for phone expenses last year and Hunter got more than $2,200.

Hunter says the Ethics Committee suggestion of only reimbursing for travel costs is a "fine point," but that, "If that's not appropriate we would cease doing so immediately."

Unique crossover

Scott Parker is the chief of staff to Rep. Rob Bishop, Cannon's Republican colleague from Utah. He previously was on the payroll for Bishop's campaign but hasn't taken a salary from the re-election bid for some time. He has taken a few small reimbursements for supplies but says there really isn't a full-time campaign staff.

"We keep it separate," Parker says of the congressional office and the campaign. But he acknowledges he is the one who compiles and submits Bishop's quarterly campaign finance disclosure.

"Without a doubt, I volunteer a lot of free time to it. I obviously care a lot about Rob's re-election."

Bishop has not faced a serious challenge since first elected to Congress, while Cannon has faced an interparty race almost every election cycle.

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has not paid any congressional staff a campaign salary, though some staffers have volunteered for the campaign, according to spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend. The office attempts to keep the federal and campaign staff separate, she says.

"It just seems to be cleaner and more straightforward that way," Heyrend says.

It's the same way with Sen. Orrin Hatch, says Dave Hansen, the senator's campaign manager who still receives a monthly salary of $10,000. "Hatch keeps it very separate," Hansen says.

Sen. Bob Bennett does not have any congressional staffers on his campaign payroll.

Craig Holman, lobbyist for the government watchdog group Public Citizen, says there's nothing inherently wrong with congressional employees doing work on their own time to help a campaign, "as long as it is separate and there is no use of public funds on behalf of the campaign."

But Holman says he is concerned by the lack of records reflecting the precise breakdown of each Cannon employee's time spent on congressional and campaign work.

"This lawmaker should be keeping very accurate records of time off, time on and who's paying."

tburr@sltrib.com