Taxpayer perks for government when they leave office.
By JAKE SHERMAN & JOHN BRESNAHAN | 12/21/09
U.S. taxpayers are spending more than $40,000 per month on office space, staff, cell phones and a leased SUV for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, even as he works as a lobbyist for private corporations and foreign governments.
The payments are perfectly legal under a federal law that provides five years of benefits for former speakers — but only if Hastert never makes use of his government-funded perks in the course of his lobbying work. Ethics experts say that sort of separation is hard to maintain.
Hastert “has to be meticulous in his schedule to make sure there is no bleed from his publicly subsidized office into his private practice,” said Kenneth Gross, a former Federal Election Commission general counsel and congressional ethics authority. Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, called the arrangement “really concerning.”
“It is specifically prohibited — federal dollars can’t be spent on lobbying operations,” Ellis said. “We are paying for his staff [and] for a car, and we need to be very sure that he isn’t spending a dime of that money on lobbying operations. “That all needs to be above board, in the clear and transparent. And it’s not.”
Hastert declined to discuss the situation with POLITICO.
But his spokesman, Brad Hahn, said the former 11-term congressman is in full compliance with rules covering how the federal funds are spent. Hahn said Hastert’s lobbying work “is completely separate [from the office of the former speaker], and he keeps them completely separate.”
The federal government pays $6,300 per month to rent an office for Hastert and his staff in Yorkville, Ill. Hahn conceded that Hastert has no other office set aside for lobbying work in Illinois but said that the former speaker travels to Washington frequently for work.
In addition to the office, the government pays the salaries of three of Hastert’s assistants in his Illinois office — each more than $100,000 in 2008. Bryan Hardin, Hastert’s administrative assistant (the title often used by a chief of staff in a congressional office) earned $138,000.
“The office of the former speaker has specific functions that are tied to Denny being the former speaker, but he does not receive any compensation and is not an employee,” Hahn said. “There are three staffers that carry out the functions — archiving, correspondence, speaking engagements — and working with the Hastert Center” at Wheaton College.
House disbursement records show that the office is spending an additional $2,000 per month in taxpayer money on a consulting firm, Burnham Strategies, that is run by several of Hastert’s former staffers, including Hahn. Altogether, the firm was paid $30,000 through Sept. 30 of this year, records show.
Taxpayers also make the lease payments on a 2008 GMC Yukon and pay for a satellite TV subscription, cell phones, laptops and other expenses.
Since Hastert opened the Illinois office in early 2008, records show, the government has paid for five computer monitors at a total cost of $1,125, spent almost $1,300 for desks and shelled out an additional $4,460 for Hewlett-Packard laptops. Other expenditures include $745 for a printer and about $620 to transport a clock.