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Alan Grayson may have violated ethics rules with campaign interview from official House office

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From the outset, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson may have violated congressional ethics rules in his U.S. Senate campaign, according a former legal counsel for House leadership.

By holding a July 9 campaign-related interview from his House office, the brash Orlando liberal may have broken rules prohibiting congressional members from engaging in campaign activity within an official office space.

Grayson’s conversation with Huffington Post Live was held on the morning he announced entering Florida’s Democratic Senate primary. Huffpost Live reporter Alyona Minkovski focused on Grayson’s decision to enter the race.

The freshly minted Senate candidate began the interview sitting at a computer, with flags in his Washington, D.C., office clearly visible behind him. Later, Grayson goes from appearing on the screen as a video interview to “on the phone” without a break or explanation. The 15-minute interview focused on his Senate campaign.

Joe Schoffstall of the Washington Free Beacon spoke with former in-house counsel on ethics Elliot Berke, a managing partner at Berke Farah LLP, who noted that engaging in interviews and other campaign activity from an official office is expressly forbidden.

“There’s a very clear prohibition on engaging in campaign activity within an official office or using official resources,” Berke said.

“There’s a very limited exception to that rule that allows a press secretary to answer occasional questions on political matters,” he added, “but that exception also makes clear that any interview cannot be substantially devoted to the campaign. You could try to argue that exception applies to the member too, but that’s unclear.

“So if Congressman Grayson gave an interview in his official office or using official resources that was substantially campaign related, that would clearly be a problem.”

Ken Scudder, Grayson’s communications director, admitted to the Beacon that the interview did take place in the congressman’s official office.

“Because of the hectic schedule that day, including the last-second calling of lengthy votes about the use of the Confederate flag on federal grounds, the congressman took the interview in his office,” Scudder said. “The interview was done on a campaign computer, and there was no attempt to misuse government funds or resources. The congressman will not do any more interviews in his government office regarding his campaign for the U.S. Senate.”

Scudder could not clarify why the conversation, a supposed “phone call,” would be designated an interview.

Berke added that if Grayson used a campaign computer for the interview, it would still be against ethics rules, which prohibit the use of official equipment, as well as any campaign activity within the office.

“The prohibition on using official resources extends beyond the use of the equipment,” Berke told the Beacon. “It prohibits campaign activity while in the official office too.”

According to the House Ethics Manual:

Members and staff should be aware that the general prohibition against campaign or political use of official resources applies not only to any Member campaign for re-election, but rather to any campaign or political undertaking.

Thus the prohibition applies to, for example, campaigns for the presidency, the U.S. Senate, or a state or local office, and it applies to such campaigns whether the Member is a candidate or is merely seeking to support or assist (or oppose) a candidate in such a campaign.

The House buildings, and House rooms and offices — including district offices — are supported with official funds and hence are considered official resources. Accordingly, as a general rule, they may not be used for the conduct of campaign or political activities.

Thus, for example, a Member may not film a campaign commercial or have campaign photos taken in a congressional office. For rules on filming and taking of photos on grounds near the Capitol, the office of the Sergeant at Arms should be contacted.  

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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