Thursday, February 09, 2006

Richard Pombo's Ethically Questionable Activities

I know I have been focusing a lot on the Democratic horserace the last couple of days, but Richard Pombo has had a lot of bad press recently and I want to focus on two articles. These articles involve the allocation of public money in ways that potentially violate House ethics rules. There is another article, that I will not explore in this post, that is more complicated and involves a newly revealed connection between Richard Pombo and a lobbyist connected to Jack Abramoff’s dirty deals. Look for a post about that tonight or tomorrow. In the meantime, there is more than enough here to think about.

First, Nick Juliano in the Tracy Press today revealed that in 2003 Richard Pombo took what appears to be a family vacation on the taxpayers’ dime. Although Pombo has now tried to claim that he did official business on the trip, at the time he clearly implied that the purpose of the trip was recreational. As such, the reimbursement he received for the trip would violate House ethics rules, not to mention the standard ethical prohibition against abusing the public trust.

From the Tracy Press:
In summer 2003, just after he was named chairman of the House Resources Committee, Rep. Richard Pombo loaded the family in an RV for “two weeks on vacation” traveling around the West.

Documents obtained by the Tracy Press show taxpayers covered most of his expenses.
“This August, my family and I rented an RV and set out to explore the West,” Pombo, R-Tracy, wrote in a 2003 article posted on the Resources Committee’s Web site.

“We spent two weeks on vacation, stopping along the way to enjoy the splendor of many of our national parks.”

Pombo was reimbursed $4,935.87 to rent the RV and spent $1,500.51 on a government credit card for “travel subsistence” during a two-week span from July 27 to Aug. 11, 2003, according to a Resources Committee spending ledger obtained by the Press.
I will not spend too much time commenting on this. This seems like a pretty straightforward ethical issue. Nobody in government should try to pass off personal expenses as expenses relating to official business. If Pombo was engaged in official business, then he is entitled to be reimbursed for the expenses related to that business. But the fact that he referred to the trip at the time as a vacation with his family seriously calls into question whether he in fact conducted any official business.

This dovetails with another issue, which concerns the recent revelation that Richard Pombo has been paying for expenses relating to a top aide, Steven Ding, in contravention of House ethics rules. Representatives Ellen Tauscher and George Miller have both asked for an investigation of these apparent violations.

The Hill describes the alleged violations a follows:
Steven Ding lives in Stockton, Calif., which is in Pombo’s district. Ding serves as chief of staff both in Pombo’s personal office and for the House Resources Committee, which Pombo chairs. The committee pays Ding $150,000, and the personal office gives him an additional $100 each month.

The two Democrats allege that Ding’s arrangements violate three House rules. First, lawmakers cannot use their personal-office budgets — officially called the members’ representational accounts (MRAs) — to pay for a committee’s expenses and committees cannot subsidize expenses for a lawmaker’s personal office. Second, if a staffer’s job or “duty station” is in Washington, he cannot be reimbursed for commuting expenses.

Finally, House rules state that a lawmaker “cannot retain an employee … who does not perform official duties commensurate with the compensation received for the offices of the employing authority.”
In other words, Richard Pombo wants to have his cake and eat it to. Pombo wants Ding on the staff of the Resources Committee, which is in Washington. But he also wants Ding in Stockton, where Pombo has a district office.

Now, although it’s not the focus of the ethics complaint by Tauscher and Miller, an important part of the back-story is that Ding receives a lot of money as an outside political consultant. And from what I’ve heard, Ding is the head of Pombo’s little machine in the San Joaquin County. So here’s my speculation about the issue at hand.

Pombo gets to pay Ding’s salary out of the Resources Committee budget, but he also gets Ding in Stockton to help the up and coming Pombo cronies. Plus Pombo gets whatever other services he needs from Ding in Stockton.

But the problem is that Pombo cannot pay Ding enough out of the Pombo MRA to afford the commute, especially since Ding has been racking up something like $40,000 a year in commuting expenses. If Ding had to pay that money out of pocket, Pombo would have to pay Ding enough money before taxes for Ding to afford $40,000 after taxes. And since we know Ding is in the top tax bracket, Pombo would have to pay something like $60,000 in salary to Ding from the Pombo MRA just to make the commute neutral on Ding’s wallet. However, there are two problems with this.

First of all, it would be more expensive for Pombo to do this because of the pre-tax/post-tax dynamic. As it is now, Pombo reimburses Ding and Ding doesn’t have to pay any income tax on the price of the planet travel. So in effect Pombo pays less from his MRA and Ding gets the same amount of travel. So, on this level, the arrangement benefits Pombo and is neutral for Ding.

But Ding actually derives some benefit from this too. The ethical rule that mandates that salary paid is commensurate with services rendered causes a bit of a problem for Pombo and Ding. If Pombo upped Ding’s salary from $100/month to say $5,000/month, you’d expect some sort of commensurate increase in Ding’s work product for the Pombo office. But if Ding is making $60,000 a year from Pombo’s personal office, the question arises whether he’s doing enough for the Resources Committee to merit $150,000 annually. And let’s not forget that Ding does significant outside work and he spends a significant amount of time commuting between Stockton and Washington. There are only so many hours in the day after all, and Ding would need to be working more than full time between Pombo’s office and the Resources Committee to merit the money he’d have to make in order to afford the travel.

And then one would wonder why Ding would endure such a hellish schedule and what must be an annoying commute just to a) work more hours and b) make very little money. It’s seems reasonable to me that Ding’s outside consulting sweetens the pot for him and makes traveling between Stockton and Washington more enticing. But if nothing else, Ding would have to work more in Pombo’s office to merit a $60,000 a year salary, which would lessen his availability to do the outside consulting.

So even if Pombo wanted to allocate more of his MRA budget to pay Ding enough salary for him to afford the airfare out of pocket, Ding would still lose time for his outside consulting. And Pombo, for his part, would lose Ding’s ability to strengthen the Pombo machine in San Joaquin County. So you can see why both would want to avoid such a scenario.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can send a note to Pombo about this here:

5:54 PM, February 09, 2006  
Blogger VPO said...

Obviously, Ding is Pombo's "enforcer" in the district. It is a Tom DeLay trick -- keep your finger in the local and state politics.

I have heard from Fish & Wildlife officials in the district that if they get out of line, Pombo's people call their bosses and see that they are straightened out.

It is the old machine politics, and done in a way that rips off the taxpayers. As someone said recently, "It may not be technically illegal, but it is certainly unscrupulous and unethical."

Bottom line --Pombo is a pig, with his face deep in the trough. In every way, it is all about money, money, money -- for himself, family, cronies.

What will it take for voters to be outraged enough to vote this money-grubbing pig out of office?

(And congratulations to Nick Juliano for digging up the "vacation the taxpayer' dollar" story)

10:26 PM, February 09, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good for Juliano for scooping the Chronicle, which has its own story on Pombo's "family vacation" today:

7:47 AM, February 10, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Oh maybe it wasn't a scoop, I didn't realize the story is all over the place.

Interesting difference in the coverage by the Tracy Press and the Stockton Record -- Hank Shaw doesn't even mention that park officials in several of the places he visited don't remember meeting him or said he didn't show up...)

-Anon #2

7:56 AM, February 10, 2006  
Anonymous Anon#3 said...

I think the Tracy Press (Juliano)was first to break the story. Sounds like the Record and SF Gate joined the coverage after a news conference with Pombo. That's my guess. Pretty weak coverage by the Record and SFGate IMHO. Like Anon#2 points out the Tracy Press followed up with more info today.

9:30 AM, February 10, 2006  

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