Congressional ethics investigators found substantial evidence that Rep. Paul Broun of Athens used taxpayer funds to fuel his political ambitions when he dipped into his House office account to hire a GOP strategist who advisedhis failed Senate campaign.
The report issued Wednesday by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) found that Georgia Republican paid $43,750 in taxpayer funds to GOP political consultant and debate coach Brett O’Donnell, who was once described as a “candidate whisperer” who helped keep politicians on message to connect with conservative voters.
Investigators found “substantial reason to believe” that Broun used Congressional taxpayer funds to hire O’Donnell in violation of House rules and federal law. House members are prohibited from using their congressional office funds for political campaigns or to hire outside consultants.
The OCE board consists of former members of Congress, staffers and private citizens. The board voted unanimously to recommend that the House Ethics Committee pursue Broun’s case further, based on the findings of its staff. The chairman and ranking member of the committee issued a joint statement Wednesday saying they will review Broun’s case but noted that the “mere fact of conducting further review…does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred.”
Broun declined to grant interviews on Wednesday and his office would not answer questions, including if he will repay the nearly $44,000 in tax dollars spent on the consultant. Having lost his Senate bid in the primary, he will leave office in January when the new Congress is seated.
“I am fully cooperating with the House Ethics Committee and will continue to do so throughout their review,” Broun said in a statement issued through his spokeswoman. “I am confident that I acted in compliance with all House rules, and I look forward to a favorable resolution of this matter.”
The committee rarely sanctions members of Congress. The Justice Department could also step in to pursue potential criminal charges for misuse of government funds.
Broun, a physician elected to the House in 2007, is considered one of Congress’ most conservative members and has made a career criticizing irresponsible spending in Washington and preaching the need for accountability and personal responsibility.
Broun hired O’Donnell in June 2012, just as the 2012 primary season was kicking into gear, and the committee found that the consultant began almost immediately to help Broun prepare for campaign debates in Georgia.
O’Donnell is known in Washington as a prominent campaign strategist and debate coach. He has worked in presidential campaigns of President George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, according to the website of O’Donnell & Associates, his consulting firm. Time Magazine twice named O’Donnell one of the most important people not running for president and that he has been called the “best political debate coach” in America, the site says.
Broun paid O’Donnell about $2,500 per month over a nearly two-year period and invoiced the amounts to the treasury as “training.”
But House investigators found that O’Donnell’s services went well beyond training and included drafting official speeches, prepping him for media interviews and consulting on communications from his House office. Broun met almost weekly with O’Donnell while Congress was in session, sometimes in his House office and sometimes at the nearby offices of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
In a lengthy interview with investigators, Broun denied that he paid O’Donnell to do campaign work, but the House report noted that the contract with O’Donnell specifically mentioned campaign services.
Investigators found that O’Donnell was part of Broun’s “‘core team’ of campaign staffers and advisers” and participated in conference calls “reserved for the campaign’s closest advisers.” The report said that O’Donnell also attended a gathering of Broun’s “brain trust” in February 2013, the same month that Broun officially declared his candidacy for U.S. Senate in Georgia.
O’Donnell subsequently helped Broun negotiate the format of GOP Senate debates in Georgia, the report said.
Broun may have turned to his Congressional office fund to pay O’Donnell because his Senate campaign could not afford him, according to the report. The report said Broun’s campaign staff told investigators that his Senate bid was “very underfunded.” The report said that if Broun had wanted to pay O’Donnell out of his campaign funds “it may not have been feasible to do so.”
When he announced his Senate candidacy, Broun said he would “stop this madness” and restore fiscal restraint to the Capitol. At that point, O’Donnell had been working for him for roughly eight months, including help with his re-election to the House in 2012.
Broun, O’Donnell and a senior staff person all told investigators that O’Donnell’s work for his campaign was on a volunteer basis.
But the board concluded that it was “likely” his campaign-related services were provided “for compensation rather than voluntarily.”
The 46-page report lists roughly a dozen occasions where O’Donnell likely helped Broun prepare for debates or forums during the 2014 Senate campaign. He also assisted Broun with campaign-related messaging calls and campaign communications strategy, the report said.
The report quoted a February email from O’Donnell to a campaign advisor, where he outlined campaign debate strategy. Broun, Bowser and others were copied on the email.
“You hired me to coach the candidate,” the email said. “I won’t make ads, write mail pieces, manage the online program or the campaign, but lets trust each other to play the roles we were hired to do.”