February 7, 2012; Source: Washington Post | The crack investigative team at the Washington Post conducted a comprehensive review of Congressional earmarks that happened to go to “companies, colleges and community groups where the…spouses, children and[/or] parent [of members of Congress] work as salaried employees, lobbyists or board members.”

The members in question, to a man and woman, basically said that the earmarks weren’t intended to benefit themselves or their family members and that they did nothing wrong—no surprise there. In many cases, it is probably 90 percent true that there was no inappropriate intent of self-inurement in earmarks that, for example, went to universities that employed members’ spouses. But the other 10 percent might cases in which an earmarking legislator may have been a little more positively inclined toward the spouse’s college than to another, equally deserving college without the familial connection. 

Though plenty of earmarks are all but cynical Congressional boondoggles, many are grants for good projects—but in this Washington Post list, they suffer from the particularly bad “optics” of having gone to organizations with legislators’ family members on the payroll. 

The NPQ Newswire’s interest is in those earmarks that went to nonprofits connected to members of Congress. From the WashPo list of all family-connected earmarks, we found these:

  • Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) has directed approximately $440,000 in federal earmarks, since 2008, to the University of Montevallo, where his wife serves on the board of trustees.
  • Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) funneled almost $200,000, in 2008 and 2009, to a middle school mentoring program that employed the Congressman’s stepdaughter and her husband, but Bishop said he hadn’t realized that they worked there and he stopped pushing for earmarks there once he found out.
  • Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) obtained earmarks of $1.79 million in 2010 for the Community Rehabilitation Center, whose contracted lobbyist was Brown’s daughter. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) cosponsored a $750,000 earmark for the Center in 2010, but withdrew the request when he discovered that Brown’s daughter was the Center’s lobbyist.
  • Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), while serving as an appropriations committee chairperson in 2008, obtained a $1.82 million earmark for the Puget Sound Partnership, where his son was the executive director.
  • Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) participated, in 2009 and 2010, in getting approximately $5.3 million in earmarks for the University of Houston, where her husband has been serving as a senior administrator. She pitched $16.5 million more in earmarks last year, but was snagged by the federal earmark moratorium.
  • Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) earmarked “$2.3 million to two community programs in Boston connected to his wife,” according to the Washington Post. $1.2 million of those earmarks went to the South Boston Community Health Center program which employs Lynch’s wife as director of marketing and development. Lynch said her salary comes from the organization’s general operating budget, while his earmarks were program specific.
  • Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) funneled $290,663 in 2008 to the nonprofit Beloved Community Family Services which he founded and where his wife serves on the board of directors. His wife does not draw a salary from the nonprofit, which aims to help Chicago’s at-risk children.
  • Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.) has obtained $4.2 million in earmarks from the budget of the National Nuclear Security Administration since 2005 for the Achieving a College Education program at Maricopa Community Colleges, where his daughter is the director. “The perception is that you helped your daughter, but if you evaluate the kids who benefited from this, it was worth doing,” Pastor told the Post.

Odd that these members of Congress simply don’t get it. It isn’t that their family members might be direct or indirect financial beneficiaries of the earmarks. It isn’t even that their earmarks may not be going to worthy causes. It is that when these big earmarks to specific nonprofits bypass competitive grant processes—or when funds for a nuclear waste disposal program are diverted to a completely unrelated community college program—it puts other nonprofits at a competitive disadvantage for federal funds…unless they decide to marry into political families. —Rick Cohen