Former Rep. Paul Broun ran for U.S. Senate in 2014. A federal indictment against Broun’s former chief of staff alleges that a top GOP political consultant advised Broun’s Senate campaign in violation of laws forbidding the use of taxpayer money to pay consultants. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

What did former Rep. Paul Broun know? Corruption probe inches closer

In 2014, then-U.S. Rep. Paul Broun repeatedly told congressional ethics investigators that a political consultant paid with tax money was a “volunteer” for his election campaigns, but a federal corruption indictment unsealed last month called that a “cover story.”

The indictment against David Bowser, Broun’s former chief of staff, casts doubt on Broun’s claims that the consultant was hired solely to advise him in his official role as a member of Congress, and did not have a paid position with Broun’s campaigns for House in 2012 and Senate in 2014.

It’s against the law for members of Congress to spend taxpayer dollars intended for staffing their official offices on their politicalcampaigns. From 2012 to 2014, Broun paid Brett O’Donnell, a high-priced Washington consultant known as the “tea party whisperer,” $43,750 to give him communications advice.

O’Donnell pleaded guilty to lying about the arrangement last year and is awaiting sentencing in federal court. The government’s April indictment against Bowser charged Broun’s top aide with obstructing a House ethics investigation into O’Donnell’s hiring, making false statements and stealing government property.

The question now is whether the corruption investigation will stop there or engulf Broun, who has consistently denied wrongdoing as he challenges U.S. Rep. Doug Collins for the Ninth District congressional seat in the May 24 Georgia Republican primary. The scandal has become a campaign issue for Broun in the increasingly fiery race.

“Doug Collins is making all these false accusations, trying to make me guilty for something that I haven’t done,” said Broun during a May 3 interview in a Hartwell McDonald’s. “And all of his false accusations, all of his lies, his distortions and half-truths are not going to change the fact that I fully complied with the rules of the House, and if Mr. Bowser didn’t it’s totally unknown to me.”

A Justice Department spokesman said the department generally does not confirm nor deny whether a matter is under investigation. Broun said he is no longer under investigation and said he has fully cooperated with federal prosecutors and a grand jury in Macon.

Noah Bookbinder, a former federal prosecutor who is now the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the Justice Department tends to move “very cautiously and deliberately” up the political totem pole if it suspects wrongdoing by an elected official, building a case and hoping that low level people will make plea deals in exchange for information.

“They’re also not going to charge a congressman at all unless they really feel like they’ve got a very strong case,” he said.

Bookbinder does not know the details of Broun’s case, but said the key to whether the former four-term Congressman is criminally chargedis if federal investigators can prove how much he knew and whether he was involved in discussions to cover up O’Donnell’s role with the office.

“If the prosecutors are able to prove, whether through statements from O’Donnell and from Bowser or through documents, that Congressman Broun was a party to conversations about that being a cover story then he’s in some real trouble because then it would suggest that he told a version of events to the Office of Government Ethics that he knew to be wrong,” said Bookbinder.

Robert L. Walker, a former federal prosecutor and ex-top staffer for the House and Senate ethics committees, said the fact that the federal indictment was not accompanied by a plea agreement from Bowser “indicates that the government has kind of hit a wall here on their investigation.”

“If they had enough to charge a conspiracy and participation by the congressman at this point, without the cooperation of David Bowser, they would have done so,” said Walker, who is now at the law firm Wiley Rein and said he does not have a position on the case. “At least short of that there would have been some indication in this indictment that the government thought it had enough evidence to charge a conspiracy that would include others.”

This is not the first time Broun’s congressional office spending has been under scrutiny. Broun’s then-top aide resigned in 2008 after office coffers nearly went bankrupt due in part to excessive mailings to constituents.

Broun’s story to investigators

Broun’s most extensive comments about O’Donnell’s role came during a lengthy interview with investigators from the Office of Congressional Ethics, who questioned the then-Congressman in June 2014, as part of an investigation into O’Donnell’s hiring and using federal funds to pay his fee. Lawmakers are not allowed to hire outside consultants for their congressional offices beyond basic, non-legislative services such as IT.

That investigation found “substantial reason to believe” that Broun’s office improperly used taxpayer funds to retain O’Donnell, but it ended when Broun left office at the start of 2015.

All of what Broun told the investigators, however, was subject to the federal False Statements Act, which makes it a crime to lie to or conceal information, and Broun was informed about how the law applied to him, according to the transcript of his interview.

In the interview, Broun described himself as “not a micro manager” who left most of the day-to-day decision making to his chief of staff, Bowser.

Broun told investigators that in 2012 he asked his House office staff to find him someone who could help him become a better communicator and think more quickly on his feet, noting that “sometimes my brain would freeze up and I couldn’t think about what I wanted to say.”

Broun said he met weekly with O’Donnell in his House office and that O’Donnell, working as a “part time independent contractor,” provided feedback on floor speeches, comments to the media and overall message to the public.

In 2012, Broun faced a primary opponent for re-election to his Tenth District seat and in early 2013 he announced his intention to run for U.S. Senate and the seat being vacated by former Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

O’Donnell worked with Broun and his staff throughout that time, but when ethics investigators asked him about it, Broun said O’Donnell’s campaign work was purely on a volunteer basis.

“I’ve been adamant all along that any function that Brett had on the campaign side was totally voluntary,” Broun told investigators, repeating the same line at least five times during the interview. Broun said he often told O’Donnell that, too.

Broun also told Congressional investigators that he was clear with his staff about what O’Donnell could and couldn’t do.

“I tried not to even get near the line, so that you guys don’t have to come talk to me,” Broun said. “I’ve always just been very clear to everybody no matter what we do that there is a division between the official side as well as campaign side.”

The feds version of what happened

The indictment against Bowser, however, paints a starkly different narrative of O’Donnell’s role and how it was understood, both inside and outside of Broun’s office.

The indictment alleges that O’Donnell’s hiring was not the staff’s idea, but Broun’s, and that his hiring was timed so that O’Donnell could begin advising Broun’s 2012 re-election campaign immediately.

Broun interviewed O’Donnell for the job at two meetings, both of which took place at the National Republican Congressional Committee headquarters, a location typically used by House members when they wish to hold political meetings away from their official office.

Broun and his staff discussed the need to engage O’Donnell quickly so that the consultant could help Broun with a campaign debate he was scheduled to attend with his GOP primary opponent in June, according to the indictment.

O’Donnell’s contract was signed June 21, 2012, the indictment alleges, and O’Donnell went to work helping Broun prepare for the candidate debate the very same day.

Federal prosecutors detail that O’Donnell completed substantial campaign work, including helping Broun draft and practice campaign speeches, negotiating the format for upcoming debates and even preparing Broun’s wife on messaging ahead of appearances.

They also said O’Donnell held weekly one-hour sessions on messaging and communications, including for the Senate campaign, with Broun in his congressional office.

In early 2013 O’Donnell was involved in Broun’s announcement for Senate and flew to Georgia to attend a staff retreat with Broun’s campaign staff in February. The travel was paid for out of Broun’s campaign account, according to the indictment.

But Broun told Congressional ethics investigators that O’Donnell’s trip to Georgia was for a retreat with his official House office staff, contradicting the facts alleged in the indictment.

News story sparks crisis

The indictment against Bowser alleges that Broun’s staff became aware that the Congressman would face questions about O’Donnell’s role after a July 2013 USA Today article highlighted O’Donnell’s work for Broun and several other members of Congress.

The story touched off a flurry of emails and phone calls among Broun’s official and campaign staffs, according to the indictment.

“The congressman is under the impression that both the official office and the campaign have paid this individual,” one of Broun’s campaign staff members says in an email to Bowser that is quoted in the indictment.

Other emails quoted in the indictment, which refer to Broun as “Congressman A,” reveal that Broun and his staff planned to meet and discuss how to respond to the USA Today story.

“Just to fill you in, Brett [O’Donnell] came in today and we both met with [Congressman A] and talked about how we would respond to the story,” a Broun staffer writes to Bowser. “Today [Congressman A] said he thought Brett might be paid on both official and campaign. Do you know what the situation is? I talked to [Congressman A] and he said he won’t talk to anyone about the payment situation until we discuss.”

There are also indications that the staff realized that O’Donnell’s involvement with the campaign and Broun’s House office raised serious legal issues.

“We can discuss on the phone later,” Bowser emails a campaign staffer. “We are fine on this.”

“All things are ‘discoverable,’” the staff member responded, an apparent reference to how emails could be subject to legal discovery.

Bowser did not respond to this last email in writing, the indictment alleges.

Broun shifts blame

O’Donnell remained on the federal payroll in Broun’s House office throughout 2013 before he was abruptly terminated in March 2014, shortly after an unnamed television reporter sought to question Broun about O’Donnell’s work on his Senate campaign, according to the indictment.

It was at that time, the indictment alleges, that Bowser told O’Donnell that his work on Broun’s campaigns was as a “volunteer.”

“That was the first time Bowser had told O’Donnell that he was a ‘volunteer,’” the indictment states.

House ethics investigators interviewed Bowser, Broun and other staff members three months later and during those interviews Bowser and Broun both described O’Donnell’s role as a “volunteer.”

The government charged Bowser with five counts of making false statements; four of those relate to Bowser’s assertions that O’Donnell worked in an official capacity for Broun’s House office and that any work for Broun’s campaigns wasstrictly voluntary.

Another charge against Bowser is theft of government funds for the nearly $44,000 that was used to pay O’Donnell out of the congressional checkbook.

For his part, Broun said this week that he has no fear about the Justice Department pursuing similar charges against him and shifted responsibility to his former top aide.

“If my chief of staff is guilty it is solely because he willfully and directly disobeyed my direct orders to him. I cooperated with investigators for two years,” said Broun.

“I’ll do everything I can to root out corruption and law-breaking, and if my chief of staff is guilty then he should be punished and I’ll help the federal government find if that’s true,” he added.

Bookbinder, the former prosecutor, said whether the Justice Department could find Broun ultimately responsible depends on intent.

“If you’re going to charge somebody with theft of government funds you have to prove that they knew that the money was going in a place that it wasn’t supposed to go,” he said. “For criminal prosecution purposes, being totally clueless tends to be a pretty complete defense.”

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