At least four Democrats in Congress have sponsored millions of dollars in federal spending projects for organizations that employed their spouses over the last two years, according to a new report.
Sen. Tim Kaine and Reps. Pete Aguilar, Jason Crow, and Mike Thompson – all Democrats – helped steer the money through earmarks, a political term for provisions that members of Congress write into law directing federal funds to specific local projects in their states and districts, The Messenger reported.
The findings reportedly came from more than 1,000 pages of congressional appropriations records as part of an analysis comparing congressional records that identify sponsors of earmarks with the personal financial disclosure forms filed by lawmakers. The financial disclosure forms require lawmakers to identify sources of income for themselves and their spouses.
Kaine sponsored two earmarks totaling nearly $3.5 million for George Mason University, where his wife, former Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton, worked as interim president from 2019-20. Holton is currently a professor in the university’s Schar School of Policy and Government and its College of Education and Human Development.
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The earmarks included $1.48 million last year for a project titled “Coalition to Enhance the Capacity of Policing Mental Health Problems in Virginia” and $1.95 million this year “to recruit and train college students for tutoring of elementary and secondary school students.” George Mason acknowledged in a press release that the former measure “resulted from the efforts” of Kaine and fellow Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner.
The earmarks “are in no way influenced by Secretary Holton,” a Kaine spokesperson told The Messenger, noting George Mason is the largest public research university in Virginia and adding that the senator will advocate for good ideas brought forth by any school offering solutions for issues facing Virginians.
“Secretary Holton has no involvement in the CDS process, and no involvement in the George Mason CDS requests,” the spokesperson added, using an acronym for Congressionally Directed Spending, the Senate’s term for earmarks. “Senator Kaine and Secretary Holton have not discussed the requests.”
Meanwhile, Aguilar was the sole sponsor of $750,000 awarded this fiscal year to the University of Redlands, his alma mater, for a “University Village Development Project.” Aguilar’s wife works as an operations support director in student financial services at the school, according to its website.
“The funding would be used to create a sustainable, multimodal, transit-oriented, and mixed-use infrastructure for the Redlands community,” Aguilar wrote in a letter last year on the earmark. “I certify that neither I, nor my immediate family has any financial interest in this project.”
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Aguilar’s office also sent The Messenger an April 28, 2022, letter from the House Ethics Committee notifying the congressman that he “may certify no financial interest” for the project.
“You stated your spouse’s employment and salary would not be impacted by the University Village project,” the letter read. “Recent news articles appear to support that assertion, as revenue generated by the University Village project is intended to be an additional, non-tuition revenue stream for the University… it appears that any benefit to the University of Redlands would benefit the university as a whole, and would not have a direct or foreseeable effect on your or your immediate family’s pecuniary interests. Rather, your spouse’s financial interest in the funding request for the University Village project is remote, or speculative, in nature.”
As for Crow, the congressman sponsored multiple projects for the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus. His former wife, Deserai Anderson Crow, is a professor in the University of Colorado system in the school of public affairs. They were married at the time of Crow’s earmark requests.
“This funding was requested following all guidance to benefit one of the largest medical campuses in the Rocky Mountain region,” said Crow spokesperson Grace Wright. “Colorado is fortunate to have several world-class, independent public universities. Congressman Crow will always fight for Colorado and work to provide resources that benefit the community.”
In California last year, Thompson secured $1.8 million for water improvements at Adventist Health St. Helena, which was damaged by a wildfire in Napa Valley. The congressman also noted during an event last year handing over the money that he was born at the hospital.
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Thompson signed a letter certifying that neither he nor his immediate family has a financial interest in the project as part of the process to obtain the funds.
Thompson spokesman Jack Stelzner told The Messenger that Thompson’s wife is a nurse at the hospital, and that “neither her pay nor her position have been or will be impacted” by the funding.
“We sought guidance from House Ethics Committee regarding this earmark request,” he explained. “The Ethics Committee informed us that the decision to support the project must be made on the project’s merits, which is how we evaluated the project.”
Stelzner said the water storage project can be used to fight fires and benefits hundreds of residents and businesses not associated with the hospital.
While congressional ethics rules prohibit U.S. lawmakers from sponsoring earmarks in which they or their spouse have a financial interest, the rules have been interpreted to make several earmarks requests permissible.
The earmark appropriations process requires members of Congress to state in writing that neither they nor their family members, have any financial interest in the projects they are sponsoring. According to the House Ethics Manual, an earmark would carry a financial interest “when it would be reasonable to conclude that the provision would have a direct and foreseeable effect on the pecuniary interests of the member or the member’s spouse.” That financial interest could “derive from a salary, indebtedness, job offer, or other similar interest.”
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Sente rules are similar, stating that a senator may not “knowingly use his official position to introduce, request, or otherwise aid the progress or passage” of earmarks whose main purpose is to further the financial interests of the senator or their immediate family.
Proponents of earmarks argue it’s advisable to allow elected officials to devote a small percentage of federal spending to the communities they know best. However, critics counter that the system could be easily abused and is often driven by lawmakers’ desire to be re-elected.
Congress eliminated earmarks in 2011 amid several controversies involving alleged waste and corruption over various projects. But 10 years later, Democrats announced the return of congressional earmarks, promising this time it would be different.
“Our bipartisan reforms will produce a small number of projects with strong community support, a transparent process where no member’s family can benefit and where projects are audited to ensure money was spent as planned,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., then the House Appropriations Committee chair, said in 2021.
Members of Congress sponsoring earmarks that benefit their spouses’ employers isn’t a new issue. In 2012, for example, Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW), a watchdog group, found that 38 members of Congress – 24 Democrats and 14 Republicans – had sent earmarks to a family business, employer or associated nonprofit.
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