Mereda Davis Johnson stands with her husband, U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, in 2015 as she is sworn in as a DeKalb County commissioner by Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Adams. The congressman has donated $3,000 in money he collected for his campaign to his wife’s campaign committee. From 2008 to February 2015, he also paid her more than $50,000 for consulting work. “Quite frankly, my wife is quite effective at helping me,” he said. “I can probably get her to do things for less money than it would cost for someone else who would not do as well a job as she.” KENT D. JOHNSON /KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Some Georgia lawmakers’ relatives land on campaign payrolls

Several members of Congress from Georgia spent tens of thousands of dollars in recent years paying family members for campaign work big and small, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of campaign filings found.

One lawmaker, Republican U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, hired his daughter as his campaign manager. Another, Democratic U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, enlisted the help of his wife as a consultant and adult children as couriers. And they’re not alone.

The practice of hiring relatives is perfectly legal under the country’s campaign finance laws for members of Congress, and it isn’t new. Lawmakers of both parties from across the U.S. have paid folks with the same surname using money they raised for their own campaigns.

Critics say the practice raises questions of nepotism and the prospect that lawmakers could be using their office to enrich their families. Some representatives say there’s no one they trust more than their relatives to do the sensitive and unglamorous work of campaigning for re-election.

“All my life I’ve hired my kids,” said Loudermilk, who owned an information technology services business before he was elected to Congress in 2014. “Why should it be any different now?”

Nepotism rules

Nepotism laws bar members of Congress from hiring relatives onto their federal office staffs because those salaries are paid for by taxpayers.

The rules are much different for House and Senate campaigns, which are funded by private donors. Hiring family members is considered aboveboard as long as relatives are doing bona fide work and earn market rate for it.

But there can be gray areas, said Jordan Libowitz of the left-leaning watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW.

“What you’re looking for is that they’re actually doing the jobs they’re being paid for,” Libowitz said of relatives hired to work on lawmakers’ campaigns.

“There can sometimes be a difference between what is technically legal and what is ethically right, and these situations can sometimes muddy those waters,” he added.

The laws are broad, and enforcement of the rules is often lax. The discretion regarding campaign expenses is often left in the hands of the lawmakers themselves.

It’s common for family members and friends to work on campaigns, especially as candidates are starting out for the first time, Libowitz said. That was the case with Loudermilk, who hired his daughter Christiana as his campaign manager when he entered the six-candidate GOP primary three years ago to replace U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey in Georgia’s 11th Congressional District.

Loudermilk said there is no one he trusts more with his campaign than his daughter.

“I know her work ethic. … I know that she’s going to be honest, have integrity and she knows the rules,” the Cassville Republican said in an interview.

Loudermilk paid his daughter nearly $52,000 in 2015 and 2016, according to federal filings, and nearly $15,000 so far in 2017, a non-election year.

Campaign donations

Others have chosen to hire their relatives after they have been elected as they have faced scant competition at the ballot box.

Johnson paid his wife, Mereda Davis Johnson, more than $50,000 for consulting work from 2008 through February 2015, five months before she was elected a DeKalb County commissioner. After his wife was sworn into local office, Johnson donated $3,000 to her campaign committee from money he collected for his own campaign.

“My wife and I are pretty much a team,” Johnson said. “We support each other and we’ve always done that throughout our 38 years of marriage. So for the work that she has done for the campaign we reimburse her. We pay her for her work.”

Johnson, who has served in Congress for a decade, said his wife’s work for the campaign was more cost-effective than hiring an outsider.

“I respect others’ opinions, but quite frankly, my wife is quite effective at helping me,” he said. “I can probably get her to do things for less money than it would cost for someone else who would not do as well a job as she.”

He’s also paid his two adult children for the occasional small courier job.

Albany Democratic U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, meanwhile, has regularly donated — using money raised for his re-election campaigns — to the campaigns of his wife, Vivian Bishop, since 2003 — she’s currently the Municipal Court clerk for Muscogee County, a role she’s held for more than two decades. His spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Changing the rules

Good government groups have pushed Congress to change the practice for years, especially after both former U.S. Reps. Tom DeLay and Jesse Jackson Jr. landed prison sentences on charges of funneling campaign money to their relatives. But those efforts have not advanced far on Capitol Hill.

The practice of hiring relatives onto campaigns isn’t limited to Washington.

Gov. Nathan Deal paid his daughter-in-law more than $1.5 million for her fundraising work on his re-election campaign in 2014, or a 10 percent commission, the AJC previously reported. Denise Deal’s work with the governor also helped her build business with other Georgia politicians, even though she had never done any fundraising before her father-in-law’s campaign.

And Deal is not alone. Over the years, Gingrey was dinged for contributing to a campaign managed by his daughter and donating to her employer. And U.S. Rep. David Scott, who has represented a southwest Atlanta district in the House for 14 years, was admonished for using his campaign accounts to pay more than a half-million dollars to four relatives and his family’s advertising business in the mid-2000s, news that had him labeled one of the 25 most “corrupt members of Congress” by CREW. The Democrat and his family members have maintained they have done nothing wrong.

“I think it’s absolutely right for constituents to call up these elected officials and ask them point-blank,” said Sara Henderson, the executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia. “But if the family member is capable of doing the job or it’s a legitimate reason for hire, I don’t see that as being as much of an issue as just making sure these folks are legitimately working.”

“We just want to see our elected officials operating in good faith,” Henderson said.

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