A criminal investigation into misuse of taxpayer money in the congressional office of former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun also now includes questions about Broun’s successor, Rep. Jody Hice, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.
A federal grand jury in Macon has been meeting for months to hear allegations that Broun’s office illegally used $43,000 in federal funds to pay a Washington political consultant to work on both his Senate campaign, and an earlier re-election campaign to the House in 2012.
A person who has been interviewed by investigators told the AJC that investigators asked about ties between Broun’s 2014 campaign for U.S. Senate and Hice’s 2014 campaign for Broun’s House seat — which could involve improper use of taxpayer funds or violate Federal Election Commission regulations.
In interviews or statements to the AJC, both Broun and Hice strongly denied any improper conduct in their respective campaigns. And because grand juries meet in secret it’s impossible to know what charges, if any, investigators are pursuing, or how seriously.
But the questions about Hice are the first indication that what began as an ethics probe into Broun’s use of federal money last year has evolved into a broader inquiry.
“It could be more of these people paid by the taxpayers who are doing campaign work, which becomes more of a problem,” said Noah Bookbinder, a former federal public integrity prosecutor and now executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning watchdog group. “It’s not necessarily the kind of thing you would expect on its own leading to criminal charges. But what you saw before is once you have people lying to investigators, that takes it up a notch.”
The federal investigation into Broun’s office netted its first conviction last month when Brett O’Donnell, a sought-after political consultant in Washington, plead guilty to lying about his contractual relationship with Broun. O’Donnell told ethics investigators in 2014 that he was a “volunteer” for two Broun campaigns. But he admitted to federal prosecutors that he was in fact being paid by taxpayers to advise Broun’s election efforts. Members of Congress are barred from spending taxpayer money on consultants, and from using taxpayer money to hire campaign workers.
Broun’s chief of staff, David Bowser, managed the arrangement and instructed O’Donnell to lie to congressional ethics investigators by saying he volunteered for the campaign, according to O’Donnell’s plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia.
In an interview with the AJC, Broun said he is perplexed by the ongoing investigation but maintains he will be fully exonerated.
“I’ve done nothing illegal, unethical or immoral,” he said. “I’ve been fully cooperative with (Congressional investigators) as well as with the Department of Justice in this issue. I’ve expected all along that the truth will prevail and the truth is we did nothing wrong. We hired someone to be a part-time employee on our official staff and we paid him for the work that he was doing.”
Bowser, who has so far not been charged with any crime, declined to comment when approached by the AJC on Capitol Hill, where he is now chief of staff to freshman Rep. Mimi Walters, R-Calif.
Hice, a Monroe Republican, won the open-seat race to replace Broun after Broun lost his bid to win the GOP primary for Senate. Through a spokeswoman, Hice told the AJC that he has not been interviewed by investigators, and that his campaign and the Broun campaign “did not share office space or any other resources.”
Campaigns shared staff, consultant
Taxpayer-funded staff for members of Congress frequently work for campaigns as volunteers or paid staff. But they are supposed to do so on their own time — after they are done with official duties — and ethics rules require they not be compelled to do so.
The AJC found several ties between Broun’s 2014 Senate campaign and Hice’s 2014 congressional campaign. The two campaigns both employed Bowser, Broun’s chief of staff; a Georgia-based consultant named Jordan Chinouth and office space in Athens.
The Hice campaign paid Bowser $12,000 for “fundraising consulting” on Oct. 28, 2014, in the campaign’s final days and five months after Broun lost his Senate primary, according to campaign reports. The Broun campaign, meanwhile, paid Bowser $23,500 in 2013 and 2014 for Senate campaign consulting, while he made a $168,000 yearly federal salary as Broun’s chief of staff.
Hice’s spokeswoman said that Bowser “assisted with Washington, D.C. fundraising after the primary.”
But the person interviewed by federal investigators said that Bowser was the chief financial officer for both campaigns. “All numbers, all spending went through him,” the person recounted to the AJC. The person asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the ongoing case.
Chinouth, a longtime Broun aide, remains Hice’s political consultant. Bob Bibee, a part-time federal taxpayer-funded staffer for Broun, also helped Hice with his direct mail pieces, Hice said.
Kendra Pengelly, who was an unpaid intern for the Broun campaign, said an Athens office for Chinouth’s consulting firm was used for both the Hice and Broun campaigns, with staff and volunteers working for both. Broun’s calendar was on one wall, while Hice’s calendar was on the other, she said.
Pengelly recalled one instance when Broun was to do a media interview in the space.
“We had to run around the office really quick and put up poster boards and cover up all the Hice stuff,” Pengelly told the AJC. She said she had not been interviewed by investigators.
Hice’s spokeswoman clarified that the two campaigns did not share headquarters, and she noted that consultants often have multiple clients. Hice’s campaign paid for office space in Monroe. Broun, meanwhile, told congressional investigators last year that his campaign used Chinouth’s office as its main space.
Ethics case led to inquiry
Broun said he is surprised by the zeal federal investigators have shown in pursuing the case against his office.
“I’ll bet it’s staggering how much the Department of Justice has spent just to investigate something that is totally legal and ethical,” he said.
O’Donnell’s sentencing has not been set, an indication that he is cooperating with investigators in hopes of leniency. He faces up to five years for one count of false swearing.
A spokesman with the Department of Justice declined to comment on the investigation.
In his plea agreement, O’Donnell implicated Bowser, Broun’s chief of staff, saying that on two occasions he talked to Bowser about all the work he was doing on Broun’s campaign and telling Bowser that he should be paid by the campaign.
Bowser, according to O’Donnell, told him the Broun campaign did not have enough money to pay him and that he should “hang on” until after the Senate primary in May 2014.
O’Donnell told investigators that he believed Bowser would terminate his $2,500 per month consulting contract, being paid for with taxpayer funds, if he did not continue to advise Broun’s political campaign.
In the plea, Bowser is also quoted as telling O’Donnell that the Office of Congressional Ethics can go “f—- themselves” and that O’Donnell should falsely maintain that he was a volunteer debate coach for Broun’s campaign.
“Certainly those facts are set up in a way that suggest a pretty strong case against the chief of staff for apparently knowing that this was a paid arrangement and being part of the effort to instead present it as volunteer arrangement,” said Bookbinder, the former prosecutor.
“As far as Congressman Broun, it really depends if the government has information that he knew it was a paying arrangement. They clearly have statements from him to the office of congressional ethics saying very explicitly that this was a volunteer arrangement, that this wasn’t payment, but they need the other side of that that he knew it was a paying deal.”