There are volumes written about exactly what ethics are, but generally ethics refer to well-based standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans should do in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, and specific virtues. Politicians are rightly expected to display the highest ethics because their actions directly impact society, and citizens deserve representatives who conduct the people’s business fairly and that they never misuse taxpayer dollars for personal gain. There are mechanisms in the United States Congress to hold senators and representatives accountable for misusing public funds, and last Thursday, a watchdog group filed an ethics complaint against a Republican senator who, by all accounts, violated Senate ethics standards and committed at least one federal crime; possibly two.
In February, during a private meeting at his 2014 reelection campaign headquarters in Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and several campaign aides met to discuss opposition research collected on potential challengers. The discussion centered around actress and activist Ashley Judd, and one could argue the subjects discussed were unethical from a fairness standpoint, but Republican politicians are notorious for unfairly characterizing their political opponents as a matter of course, and campaigns are messy affairs. However, the ethics violation charges are not about what McConnell’s aides said about Judd, but about McConnell illegally using paid congressional staff time or resources for his re-election campaign. According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), McConnell did use “taxpayer-funded resources to pay staffers to dig up dirt on political opponents,” and CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan charged “it isn’t just an ethics violation, it’s a federal crime.” CREW filed an ethics complaint with the Senate Select Committee on Ethics to investigate whether McConnell spent taxpayer dollars to dig up dirt on potential opponents, and a separate complaint with the FBI to investigate McConnell for violating two federal laws.
In the tape recording at McConnell’s headquarters, the speaker leading the discussion clearly said details contained in the opposition research “reflects the work of a lot of folks: Josh, Jesse, Phil Maxson, a lot of [legislative assistants], thank them three times, so this is a compilation of work, all the way through.” Phil Maxson is a legislative assistant, Josh may refer to Josh Holmes, McConnell’s chief of staff, and Jesse may be Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager. McConnell claimed the tape was recorded illegally and asked the FBI to investigate who taped the secret meeting, and if they broke the law they should face the consequences, but that is a rank deflection away from the real crime. Using taxpayer dollars is against federal law and congressional rules barring lawmakers from using congressional staff or resources, which are paid for with taxpayer funds, for campaign purposes.
According to 18 USC § 641, “Whoever embezzles, steals, purloins, or knowingly converts to his use or the use of another… money, or thing of value of the United States or of any department or agency thereof, with intent to convert it to his use or gain, knowing it to have been embezzled, stolen, purloined or converted shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years.” In 1993 a former House employee pleaded guilty to a charge of theft of government property after it was discovered he did campaign work at the same time he said he was conducting official business. Also, according to 18 USC § 1341 – Frauds and swindles, paying congressional staff for campaign work may constitute mail fraud, and in 1979 another former House member was prosecuted for mail fraud for putting campaign workers on his congressional payroll. If McConnell used anyone on his legislative staff to do opposition research, or paid campaign workers from his Senate payroll, he broke federal law on two separate counts and is in violation of Senate ethics rules.
McConnell’s spokesman said the taped recording was erroneous and that the aide leading the meeting did not say thank legislative aides three times for their work compiling research on Judd, but that they engaged in research “in their free time.” The tape recording is clear, and the aide did not say “in their free time,” but it is not unusual for Republicans to tell people what they heard was not what they really heard, and in McConnell’s case, the contention is an attempt to deflect attention away from his activities by alleging the recording may have been illegal. In fact, when McConnell’s office was questioned by reporters about misusing taxpayer dollars for this campaign, they refused to comment, but days later after realizing they were in violation of federal law and Senate ethics rules, told reporters they did not hear what the tape recording clearly revealed.
CREW executive director said McConnell should “welcome both an FBI and ethics committee investigation into his conduct,” but doubtless the ranking Republican in the Senate welcomes an FBI or Senate ethics investigation. Especially damning in the tape recording is naming Phil Maxson who has been in McConnell’s employ as a legislative aide since early in 2011, but according to reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission, he was never paid by McConnell’s campaign committee or leadership PAC. McConnell’s request for the FBI to investigate the recording will also necessitate the Bureau to fully inquire whether he violated federal law(s), and coupled with the complaint filed by CREW detailing the U.S.C. violations and an impending Senate inquiry, he may rue the day he felt he was above the law and that he made enemies emboldened to tape a secret strategy meeting. It is not clear that the recording was even remotely illegal.
McConnell is a bad Senate representative for doing nothing but obstruct the U.S. Senate over the past four years, but these charges are serious and demand a thorough investigation by the FBI and the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. The account also demands that the Federal Elections Commission conducts their own investigation to determine why McConnell’s legislative aide was working on his re-election campaign without filing a report with the FEC. Doubtless, McConnell will claim ignorance of the sordid affair and tap the legislative aides and his chief of staff to take the fall and shield him from prosecution, but the fact remains he was at the secret campaign meeting and plainly heard what the tape recording reveals; that he used taxpayer dollars for personal gain. Because McConnell did not immediately alert the FBI and FEC that a crime had been committed, and failed to tell the Senate Select Committee his paid legislative staff worked for his campaign, he is culpable for concealing the malfeasance and deserves to be prosecuted as if he directed the entire affair that is more than possible, it is entirely plausible.
Audio engineer and instructor for SAE. Writes op/ed commentary supporting Secular Humanist causes, and exposing suppression of women, the poor, and minorities. An advocate for freedom of religion and particularly, freedom of NO religion.
Born in the South, raised in the Mid-West and California for a well-rounded view of America; it doesn’t look good.
Former minister, lifelong musician, Mahayana Zen-Buddhist.