[Cross-posted on Blue Mass Group.]
Note: This item is posted just as news is breaking that a complaint has been filed with the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics against Republican Scott Brown for the third of three items highlighted here.
There's an expression in basketball that goes, "It's only a foul if the referee blows the whistle." While Republican Scott Brown is desperately trying to distract voters from the issues - whether those distractions are underhanded half-court basketball shots (after, say, four misses), race baiting on an opponent's Native American heritage, or any other straws he can grasp at - he also ought to be worried that, sooner or later, the referee will blow the whistle. I am referring to the several instances in which Brown has appeared to push up against ethical standards for U.S. Senators.
I count at least three situations in just the last six weeks - two involving political use and abuse of taxpayer-funded resources and one involving the appropriateness of "super-expensive" gifts - that raise ethical questions about Republican Scott Brown's behavior that he ought to answer, especially since he seems to routinely call on everyone else under the sun to answer questions. It should be noted that, best I can tell, no more than one media outlet per item gave any significant coverage to each situation, leaving numerous questions for Brown to answer.
Ethical Gray Area #1: Republican Scott Brown Bypasses Regulated Franking Process for Constituent Mail, Just Has Taxpayers Buy His Stamps Instead
The first situation is an issue into which ProgressMass has delved previously. In short, Congress has a process in place known as "franking," which provides appropriate oversight and regulation of elected officials' taxpayer-funded mail to ensure that politicians aren't using public dollars to fund mailings with political campaign content. Evidently, Republican Scott Brown assumes that the rules don't apply to him because he has completely evaded the franking process and spent what is estimated to be tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars for stamps for his unregulated mail.
U.S. Sen. Scott Brown is doling out "attaboys" to honor roll students as he ramps up his election year outreach in a fierce fight to keep his Senate seat -- a move mocked by Democrats and lauded as politically savvy by Republicans.
Brown said he has been congratulating constituents on their high grades, gold medals and other achievements since he was a selectman in Wrentham, but admitted he has expanded the number of letters and number of high schools recently.
"I think I signed more than 1,000 last week," he told the Herald about the congratulatory letters. [...]
Brown doesn't use a congressional privilege called franking that allows elected officials to send mail for free using just their signature. Instead, he uses taxpayer funds to buy stamps.
What do taxpayer watchdogs have to say about Brown ignoring the rules?
The practice allows Brown to skirt laws that prohibit using franking for campaign purposes, but still raised the hackles of taxpayer watchdog Craig Holman.
"It is using public resources for electioneering purposes," said Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for a nonprofit consumer affairs group called Public Citizen.
Brown's office did not provide a cost estimate, but at 1,000 a week the letters could cost more than $20,000 a year.
As ProgressMass has noted in its previous coverage of this issue, there are several questions Republican Scott Brown must answer to even begin to clear the air, including:
1) Exactly how many such "congratulatory" letters has Scott Brown's U.S. Senate office sent to Massachusetts residents outside of the franking process during his time as a U.S. Senator?
2) Exactly how much in taxpayer funds has Scott Brown's U.S. Senate office spent on postage to send these "congratulatory" letters?
3) Precisely why did Scott Brown's U.S. Senate office make the decision to skirt the franking process when sending out these "congratulatory" letters?
4) Did every single one of the "congratulatory" letters sent by Scott Brown's U.S. Senate office outside of the franking process nevertheless comport fully with the franking process' stringent standards for keeping political messages out of taxpayer-funded communications? If not, what franking standards were disregarded, and on how many such "congratulatory" letters were the franking standards disregarded?
5) Given Scott Brown's own crusade against inappropriate spending of taxpayer funds at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), doesn't he believe that he has an obligation to maintain the highest level of transparency in his own office's spending of taxpayer funds?
Ethical Gray Area #2: Republican Scott Brown Takes Expensive Red Sox Tickets as Gift from Supporter, Possibly Violating Senate Gift Rules
This situation received as little coverage as an issue can without being entirely invisible: one brief passage in one single column:
Warren supporters complain that Brown spent part of Opening Day in super-expensive seats behind home plate. Brown supporters qualify: They belong to Giant Glass president Dennis Drinkwater, a long-time buddy of Brown.
The brevity of the mention belies the potential seriousness of the issue. The U.S. Senate maintains extensive regulations regarding the receipt of gifts by members. When reviewing these Senate ethics policies, keep in mind that "super-expensive" seats behind home plate for Opening Day would have a face value of over $50 and possibly over $100, with a street value of definitely over $100 and possibly over $250.
· A Member, officer, or employee may accept a gift, other than cash or cash equivalent, having a value of less than $50, provided that the source of the gift is not a registered lobbyist, foreign agent, or private entity that retains or employs such individuals. The cumulative value of gifts that may be accepted from any one source in a calendar year must be less than $100. Generally, gifts having a value of less than $10 do not count toward the annual limit. See Senate Rule 35.1(a).
· A Member, officer, and employee may accept a gift that is given on the basis of personal friendship, unless there is reason to believe that the gift was provided because of the individual's official position and not because of the personal friendship. However, if gift exceeds $250 in value, Members, officers, and employees must seek written approval from the Committee. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(4)(B).
· In determining whether a gift is provided on the basis of personal friendship, one should consider: (1) the history of the official's relationship with the donor, including any previous exchange of gifts, (2) whether, to the official's actual knowledge the donor personally paid for the gift or sought a tax deduction or business reimbursement for the it, and (3) whether, to the official's actual knowledge, the donor at the same time gave the same or similar gifts to other Members of staff.
In short, if Scott Brown's "super-expensive" seat (or is it two seats, if wife Gail Huff's ticket came from Dennis Drinkwater as well, in which case the combined street value is unquestionably over $250 for the pair) behind home plate for Opening Day is deemed to have a value in excess of $250, he must have received written approval from the Senate Ethics Committee in order to accept the gift. (Any documents you'd care to produce at this time, Senator Brown?)
Also, if the ticket(s) has a value of over $50, which it (they?) no doubt did, Brown would have to:
· prove that Dennis Drinkwater, from whom he received the ticket(s), personally paid for the tickets (as opposed having his company purchase the tickets) and never used the tickets as a tax deduction (perhaps as a business expense for wooing policymakers?); and,
· document the history of gift-giving between Drinkwater and himself to evidence that gift-giving was a regular part of their friendship and that the tickets weren't an inappropriate gift given to Brown because of his office rather than an existing friendship.
Is this why they always tell us to hold onto our ticket stubs? At any rate, Republican Scott Brown has plenty of questions to answer in order to clear the air regarding his "super-expensive" gift. We're all ears, Senator Brown.
Ethical Gray Area #3: Republican Scott Brown Has Taxpayer-Funded Senate Staff Doing Campaign Work on Taxpayer Time
Finally, we all recall one of Republican Scott Brown's recent diversionary tactics: his campaign released footage of him hitting a half-court basketball shot. No reason to discuss student loan interest rates or tax fairness or health care reform if our Senator can sink a basketball shot! However, the "amazing" shot was proven fraudulent for two reasons. One, it did not occur "amazingly" on Brown's first try, but rather on his fifth try. Two, far more importantly, the campaign video was shot by a taxpayer-funded Senate staffer on taxpayer time:
Senator Scott Brown scored campaign gold when he sunk a half-court shot last week while visiting a Cape Cod community center.
His reelection committee didn't delay, packaging the feel-good video, posting it to YouTube and alerting reporters with an e-mail.
Indirectly, the taxpayers made it all possible.
A spokesman for Brown's campaign initially told the Globe that the video was shot by "a staffer." But Brown's US Senate communications director, Marcie Kinzel, later acknowledged that she recorded it.
Kinzel also did so as she worked on federal time, staffing the senator at an event he was attending in his governmental capacity. And she was in Massachusetts after flying to and from Washington on a ticket paid for by the government.
Of course, the Brown campaign tries to make the case that the rules don't apply to them:
Nonetheless, Kinzel contends it was all legal, since she shot the video on her personal iPhone and forwarded it to the campaign only later when she was on personal time. She also said such maneuvering had been checked by campaign lawyers.
"After reviewing the details, they said that it could," Kinzel said.
Senate ethics rules allow "certain de minimis overlap" between government and political activity, such as allowing official and campaign schedulers to coordinate information.
But the campaign's co-opting of the video illustrates the ethical and legal balancing act that public servants - and their staffs - must perform as they seek reelection.
It highlights how blurry the line between campaign and non-campaign activity can be. And it underscores the unique power of an incumbent to supplement privately financed campaign staff with workers who are on the government dime.
Well, if the Scott Brown campaign lawyers say that the taxpayer-funded Scott Brown Senate staff can do Scott Brown re-election campaign work on taxpayer time (and at taxpayer expense for the staffer's plane ticket!), then it must all be 100% A-OK, right?!
Without question, before Republican Scott Brown can begin clearing the air about this, Brown and his Senate office should be expected to produce a log of every single minute spent on political campaign work or at political campaign events by his taxpayer-funded Senate staffers on taxpayer business tine. Anything short of full transparency on this matter falls dramatically short of the expectations that Brown himself has set for "the People's Seat."
Republican Scott Brown has repeatedly cut ethical corners. However, to determine whether Brown is simply gaming the system a "moderate" amount to exploit the advantages of incumbency or is full-on violating several iron-clad Senate ethics policies, he has quite a long list of concerns to address. We've all come to see how much Brown enjoys asking questions. I hope he likes answering them just as gleefully.