In Sanders Run, Staff Must Separate Campaign From Senate Work
Even though Sen. Bernie Sanders announced his run for president more than 18 months before the general election, he and his staff had to move quickly.
Sanders went from a comfortable, popular Senator who hadn’t faced a serious political challenge in years to an underdog candidate with a lot of catching up to do to close the gap with Hillary Clinton’s up-and-running, well-funded campaign for the Democratic nomination.
Before meeting those challenges, though, Sanders and his staff had another problem to address: though there were plenty of eager volunteers, Sanders had no senior campaign staff, event coordinators or media representatives operating his young campaign. The people closest to Sanders, who work with him daily in his Senate office, have to closely follow rules designed to ensure Congressional staffers aren’t using taxpayer resources to work on a political campaign.
That doesn’t mean Senate staffers don’t work on their bosses’ campaigns.
“It's a very common occurrence,” said Meredith McGehee, the policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, which keeps track of campaign law and ethics, “and that's why having clear rules and clear education of staff is a need.”
Those rules are set by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics.
“They can engage in the campaign activity,” McGehee explained in an interview, “either as volunteers or for pay, but they have to do it on their own time, they can't do it in their Senate workspace, and they can't use senate resources like a computer or telephone.”
But what, exactly, is “campaign activity,” and who’s keeping track of compliance with these rules?
While the rules themselves are very clear, there’s no one sitting in Senate offices to police staff activities, and McGehee said the Senate Select Committee on Ethics doesn’t proactively investigate staffs to ensure they’re following the rules. It takes a complaint or allegation of wrongdoing to get investigators involved, she said.
“No one knows when you're doing it [working on the campaign with Senate resources], so it can be very hard for anyone to catch you in the act unless you've kind of just been stupid about it,” she said.
Some activities are nearly impossible to categorize as either campaign-related or part of official Senate duties.
"Is the press secretary promoting a bill not, at the same time, promoting the candidacy for president?" - Joe Trippi, Political Strategist
“Sometimes there’s this gray area,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran campaign manager who headed up former Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “You know, is the press secretary promoting a bill not, at the same time, promoting the candidacy for president?"
Last week when Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs sent out a press release about Sanders’ bill to bring about tuition-free college, he did so in his capacity as a Senate staffer. Briggs also works part-time for the campaign (which, as McGehee explained, is allowed) and sends news releases from another email account there.
Things were more difficult to separate on April 30. Sanders said earlier this year that he would make a decision about whether to run for president by the end of April. Earlier in that week he’d stated his intent to run for president, so when Sanders’ office called an April 30 news conference it seemed as though it would clearly be campaign-related.
Not so, his Senate staff said. Even though he plugged his campaign website as a fundraising platform and talked about his desire to stay away from negative campaign tactics, his staff said it was an event related to Sanders’ role as a Senator, not as a candidate for the presidency. Sanders was taking the time to outline his “agenda for America,” staffers said – just not as a candidate.
That same day, Sanders campaign spokesman Nick Carter referred inquiries about Sanders’ campaign filings with the Federal Elections Commission to Briggs in the Senate office. Briggs declined to comment for this story.
It wasn’t clear then who was doing work for the campaign, or what was a campaign event versus an event put on by the Senate office.
Almost a month later, Sanders has hired campaign leadership and Bernie 2016 – the official name of the campaign – has a national headquarters on Church Street in Burlington.
Campaign Manager Jeff Weaver said Friday that the campaign is very careful about the separation of campaign activity and Senate activity.
“We take that very seriously,” he said. “You know, people have separate electronic devices and people keep track of their time and we’ve run all the traps with [the Senate Select Committee on] Ethics, so we’re making sure we’re doing everything properly.”
The Senate Select Committee on Ethics did not respond to requests for comment.