U.S. House of Representatives rules forbid federal employees from working on partisan campaigns, but the reality of how the ban work remains a gray area.
In the course of covering this year’s congressional campaigns, at least three employees of incumbent New Jersey House members spoke with NJ Spotlight during office hours during what is normally the work week.
But House ethics rules specifically prohibit federal employees from partisan campaign work during normal business hours, but allow workers to perform campaign activity during lunch and off hours.
One challenger, state Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Middlesex) questioned the role Lance for Congress Campaign Website
U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance’s] chief of staff was playing in Lance’s re-election campaign. He asked why Todd Mitchell, his opponent’s chief of staff, was seemingly working on campaign issues in the 7th District race.
Mitchell refuted the claim, saying that he was responding to a reporter’s questions about the campaign on his own time, from home, using his personal phone and email, as allowed by the House Ethics Manual
In the course of news coverage, NJ Spotlight reporters also spoke briefly with staff for Reps. Chris Smith, R-4th, and Albio Sires, D-8th. In neither case did the staffer provide substantial information, nor did they get the candidate to speak to a reporter.
John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said questions about the rules often arise during campaigns.
“Almost all campaigns try to be very careful to follow the rules,” he said. “It’s relatively common that there are questions about whether or not they did, brought by an opponent, and certainly there are times when
campaigns knowingly or unknowingly violate the rules established.”
However, said Weingart, “All incumbent members of Congress know that they need to keep campaigning separate.”
In the course of scheduling interviews for NJSpotlight’s series of stories on the congressional districts and their contested seats, some congressional staff was very clear about not answering any questions. For instance, when a reporter contacted the chief of staff for Rep. Jon Runyan, R-3rd, who facing what is considered the strongest challenge in the state this year, the staffer immediately said only that he would forward the reporter’s request to the campaign spokesman. It was spokesman Chris Russell who returned the call and answered questions.
Mitchell said he only fielded questions because campaign manager Carlos Cruz did not start work until Oct. 1. Lance had been aggressive in fending off a GOP primary challenge and is in a district considered safely Republican by all the pundits — though the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee deemed it an “emerging” race, and Chivukula has campaigned aggressively and had a few thousand dollars more on hand than Lance as of Oct. 17.
Mitchell also noted that a number of the questions he answered related to policy and the makeup of the 7th after redistricting. These, he asserted, can be seen in a prism outside of campaigning.
The question of Mitchell’s role came up in the course of an interview with the Chivukula campaign. After Mitchell’s name came up a number of times in exchanges with a reporter about Lance’s positions, Chivukula’s campaign manager, Joey Novick, wrote in an email, “Why is the Chief of Staff of Leonard
Lance … spending so much time commenting on the congressional campaign?” He noted congressional staff salaries are paid by taxpayers.
NJ Spotlight had emailed Lance staffer Angie Lundberg, asking, “Can you connect me with Congressman Lance and/or his campaign manager?” Lundberg referred the reporter to Mitchell. “Todd’s the best person for campaign requests,” she wrote in an email dated Sept. 24.
These emails were forwarded to Mitchell, who set up a time to answer NJSpotlight’s questions about key issues in the campaign and the changing political dynamic of the 7th District.
“It’s known that staff will work on weekends and nights and have a separate cell phone,” Weingart said. “Staff to members of Congress work very intensely this time of year.”
He said it would not be out of the ordinary for a staffer to answer a campaign question on a Tuesday morning — as Mitchell did — and for him to be able to claim that he did it on his own time. However, Weingart added, “I don’t know what happened in this case.”
According to the House Ethics Committee’s website: “What constitutes a staff member’s ‘own time’ is determined by the personnel policies that are in place in the employing office. Time that is available to a staff member, under those policies, to engage in personal or other outside activities may instead be used to do campaign work, if the individual so chooses. This free time may include, for example, a lunch period, time after the end of the business day, and annual leave.”
A Democratic elected official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, noted that while a congressional staffer answering campaign queries may not seem “kosher,” Lance is known as a “straight shooter” and he doubted that the congressman’s staff would do anything outside of the House Ethics rules. The Democrat also said that the accusation could be seen as a ploy for attention from Chivukula.
In the end, Weingart put the question into perspective: “I don’t think there are many voters who will base their vote on this issue.”