Camille Andrews' volunteer role as compliance officer is legal, according to ethics watchdogs. But they strongly questioned the congressman's use of a family member to decide on the legitimacy of spending that could benefit his family.
"Having your wife as the compliance officer is just asking for trouble," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington. "She has a vested interest in the resources and in the benefits that were provided by the campaign as the spouse."
Rob Andrews, who has enjoyed a rising profile in Washington, now faces an ethics review after a nonpartisan ethics advisory board said "there is substantial reason to believe" he violated campaign-finance laws. The House ethics committee will make a final ruling on the allegations.
Andrews wrote in an e-mail that he has "always followed both the letter and spirit of the law in all respects" and touted his wife's intellect and integrity. She has taught ethics courses at Rutgers.
"In a political world filled with complex political and legal issues, it is entirely appropriate for me to seek additional advice and guidance from a trusted and experienced lawyer who also is the person I am closest to in life," he wrote in an e-mail to The Inquirer.
The wedding was for a onetime political operative Rob Andrews said he hoped to recruit to help in campaigns, so he has argued that the expenses were tied to his political work.
Details of Camille Andrews' role emerged in a 244-page report from the Office of Congressional Ethics, a nonpartisan board that reviews ethics complaints and sends potential violations to the House ethics committee.
Testimony in the report, released Aug. 31, offers a revealing glimpse of the 22-year congressman, highlighting his hopes to expand his influence in the House and his reliance on a small circle of advisers, including his wife.
The trip to Edinburgh, a bustling city that blends ancient spires and an imposing castle with modern shopping and restaurants, drew the most attention from the ethics board.
Andrews, 55, decides which events to attend, he told Office of Congressional Ethics investigators. His wife determines whether campaign funds can pay for them.
That pattern held for the Scotland trip. Andrews told investigators he was "perfectly comfortable and confident" in his wife's judgment.
"Camille serves as our compliance officer. . . . She is one of the three best lawyers I know - maybe five," he said in a 57-minute interview with the board March 6.
"I made an evaluation and decision that I thought it was an appropriate expenditure," Camille Andrews said in her meeting with the board.
She was referring to the $16,575 in flights to Scotland paid for by the congressman's leadership fund.
The rest came from Andrews' campaign account, which is used for a range of expenses as varied as $2.50 for cafeteria coffee to $1,123 in Tiffany's purchases. Rob Andrews told investigators that the Tiffany's items were not personal purchases and were likely gifts for a campaign donor or volunteer.
Other members of Congress have used spouses as compliance officers, said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.
"It is a conflict of interest, and it lacks all credibility," he said.
Andrews said that the decision to go to Scotland was his own, but that his staff - chief of staff Fran Tagmire and campaign treasurer Maureen Doherty - and primarily Camille Andrews decided on the ethical questions.
Doherty said in her testimony that neither she nor Tagmire are campaign-finance experts.
Camille Andrews wrote that her husband's responses to questions about this article "reflect my position."
"I am not a public figure," she wrote. "I will respond to any reports or comments that disparage me or portray me deliberately in a false professional light by pursuing appropriate legal recourse."
(Camille Andrews also helped her husband by running for Congress in 2008 while Rob Andrews sought a Senate seat. She won the Democratic primary but then stepped aside, allowing him to return to the House when his bid fell short.)
Under federal law, campaign funds are supposed to be used for political, not personal, purposes.
The Office of Congressional Ethics advisory report said that the Scotland trip was not for "bona fide campaign or political expenses" and that Andrews also "improperly" used campaign funds in two other instances involving personal events.
After the Scotland trip was brought to light by the Star-Ledger, the couple repaid the full amount to the campaign funds, then donated the money to charity. Rob Andrews has noted that no taxpayer money was involved.
Critics argue that repaying the money doesn't make up for the original misstep of using campaign money.
The Scotland trip, and the fund that paid for the flights, grew out of Andrews' hopes to continue building his profile on Capitol Hill - an ambition laid out in the report.
A polished speaker, Andrews has close ties to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, say allies and critics alike, and has often been tapped to help deliver Democrats' message. After trying and failing to win a Senate seat, getting trounced in the Democratic primary, political associates say, he took his eye off of statewide elections and focused fully on Congress. (He had also unsuccessfully run for governor in 1997.)
Andrews' wit comes through under questioning about his spending. Asked how he knew the Edinburgh groom, Scott Street, he explained that they worked together in a presidential primary, helping former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt. Andrews played Sen. John Kerry in debate preparations.
"So they were looking for someone who had John Kerry's personality and human warmth and chose me," Andrews cracked to investigators. "I have always wondered a little bit about that."
Trying to expand his reach, Andrews created a leadership fund in late 2010, calling it the Committee to Strengthen America. Leadership funds provide an additional avenue for donating to other candidates.
"The reason you form a leadership PAC is you want to help your colleagues, because the more you help your colleagues, the more influence you have," Andrews told the ethics board. "The more influence you have, the more you can get done."
Leadership PACs also often serve as "slush funds" because the limits on what they can be used for are hazy, McGehee said. "It really is kind of the Wild West."
Doherty, Andrews' campaign treasurer, laid out the fuzzy rules in an e-mail when the congressman first formed the committee.
"Aside from the personal and official expenses exception, there is wide discretion as to what expenditures further the Leadership PAC's goals," Doherty wrote.
She included the same summary in a May 2, 2011, e-mail to Camille Andrews as they discussed how to pay for the flights to Scotland. Doherty cited examples of lawmakers spending tens of thousands of dollars from leadership PACs on expenses such as Yankees tickets, travel to resorts with donors, and golf at California's renowned Pebble Beach.
"As you can see," the memo continued, "so long as the expense furthers the Leadership PAC's goals, and is otherwise not prohibited, it appears to be permissible."
Politically, Andrews' leadership PAC has not been very active. He contributed $30,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2011 and again in March and donated to Camden and New Jersey Democratic groups. A total of $14,000 has gone to Democratic committees for Camden County and New Jersey. Only $5,500 has gone to individual candidates.
Andrews, found to have misused $954 in campaign money in 2009 but not penalized then, faces little political opposition in his safe congressional district.
But the charge of using political cash for personal expenses is a dangerous one, said Stefan Passantino, the head of the political law team at McKenna Long & Aldridge and an attorney for several Republicans.
"That allegation is one that is very highly scrutinized," he said. "It is one that, frankly, most candidates and most campaigns know is a third rail that needs to be stayed away from."
Contact Jonathan Tamari
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