RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In the never-ending quest for more campaign money, a California congressman and his wife have hit on a new strategy. But there's a chance it could get John and Julie Doolittle in trouble, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY reporting:
Republican John Doolittle has a garden-variety reelection committee, plus a separate political organization, known as the Superior California Federal Leadership Fund. His wife, Julie, has a home business. Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions raises money for both of John Doolittle's committees.
The congressman talked about the business last March on his Sacramento radio show. This audio comes from his own campaign website.
Representative JOHN DOOLITTLE (Republican, California): You know, my daughter and I are always trying to pull her out of it and say, okay, you know, you've worked, you know, ten hours today. Why don't you come be with us?
OVERBY: Congressman Doolittle's committees pay his wife commissions of 15 percent. For every $5,000 contribution she solicits from a political action committee, Mrs. Doolittle makes $750.
Since January 2003, those 15 percent commissions have added up to more than $125,000. Doolittle campaign spokesman Richard Robinson says the Federal Election Commission and the House Ethics Committee have both been asked if lawmakers can hire family members.
Mr. RICHARD ROBINSON (Chief of Staff for Rep. John Doolittle): And they have determined that it is permissible for family members to work on campaigns, to do fund raising and other consulting.
OVERBY: And to Republican fundraising consultant Dan Morgan, the Doolittles' arrangement is not only legal, but inspired.
Mr. DAN MORGAN (Republican Fundraising Consultant): I think if you have a competent spouse who can do it well, I think you're stupid if you don't do it. If there's money being raised and they're taking a straight commission off of that, to me that's a very smart business idea, not only for the candidate but for the spouse.
OVERBY: But the fundraising on commission, coupled with the fact that it's Mrs. Doolittle making the ask, has raised questions.
That's because a donor could give, with the knowledge that 15 percent would be going home with the congressman's wife. To some critics, this looks like a congressman converting campaign money for personal use. That's illegal for the reelection committee, and a possible violation of House ethics in the case of the Superior California fund.
A veteran Republican fundraiser, called the Doolittles' arrangement a sweetheart deal, but said nobody wants to go on record trashing a GOP incumbent.
Fred Wertheimer is head of Democracy 21, a watchdog organization. He's asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate the Doolittles.
In one case, Doolittle helped earmark $37 million for a company run by businessman Brent Wilkes. The earmark originated with ex-Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham, who went to prison after admitting taking bribes from Wilkes and others. Wilkes and his partners gave heavily to both of Doolittle's committees. The San Diego Union Tribune reported that Mrs. Doolittle's commissions came to more than $14,000.
And in another case, her firm was hired by lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He later pleaded guilty to corruption charges, and is now cooperating with a Justice Department investigation.
Wertheimer, at Democracy 21, notes that Congressman Doolittle used his office to help Indian tribes represented by Abramoff.
Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (President, Democracy 21): What you have here is Representative Doolittle intervening in two case-specific matters, during the same period that Julie Doolittle's company is receiving payments from Jack Abramoff's law firm.
OVERBY: Congressman Doolittle used to say that investigators in the Abramoff probe had never contacted him. Now, his campaign spokesman says each of the Doolittles has a lawyer who is "in communication with the task force."
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.