Ethics Watchdog Hits McBath (D) With Complaint Over Free Office Space Arrangement

Lucy McBath
Lucy McBath / Getty Images
May 30, 2019

An ethics watchdog filed a complaint against Rep. Lucy McBath (D., Ga.) Thursday for "improperly soliciting and accepting free congressional office space" from the city of Brookhaven, Georgia.

FACT (Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust), a right-leaning nonprofit established in 2014, asked the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate the freshman congresswoman over an arrangement shortly after she took office in Georgia's Sixth District in suburban Atlanta. McBath received free office space for four days earlier this year at the city's Lynwood Community Center.

FACT's complaint centered on a Facebook comment in February by Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst, who was responding to a man sharing a Reporter Newspapers article in February about the free space. Ernst said McBath's office "approached Brookhaven" because her district office—now in Sandy Springs—was not set up yet:

They approached Brookhaven because their office was not ready and need temporary space. It is under federal regulations (my understanding) that they could use local government buildings but not private. Their office was to be opened in a short time. They were in Lynwood for all of four days and were gone before this article hit or the author of the article asked the questions. They used a room, and fold out tables that were already there, and the WiFi. I am told that they maybe a half dozen coffee pods.
Brookhaven has offered "free" temp space for other government both county and state both Democrats and Republicans to hold meetings etc.
The party of the sitting Congresspersons did not and does not matter.
The permanent office
Is in Sandy Springs.

Brookhaven city spokesman Burke Brennan confirmed to Reporter Newspapers that McBath's office was not paying the city.

"We're happy to host our district congresswoman as she transitions and hope to build a good relationship with her," he said.

"According to the House Ethics Manual, Members of Congress cannot solicit 'anything of value,' including office space," FACT Executive Director Kendra Arnold wrote in the letter. According to published reports, "the community center's published rates are $35 per hour for residents and $70 per hour for non-residents."

Ernst told the Washington Free Beacon McBath did not ask for free space. He said Brookhaven offered not to charge, calling such arrangements commonplace and motivated by "efficient governance and common courtesy."

"My Facebook post clearly states that the City of Brookhaven offered the free temporary space," he wrote in an email. "Congresswoman McBath's office did not solicit the free space. The City of Brookhaven has a long standing practice of offering reasonable free space rentals to local, county, state and federal elected officials, regardless of political party affiliation, to conduct official business for the public benefit. This situation was no different; federal employees used an unoccupied office in the Lynwood Park Community Center during normal business hours for four days with minimum disruption to the City of Brookhaven's staff and residents and with no budgetary impact. By offering the free space, it allowed Congresswoman McBath to provide immediate constituent services to Brookhaven and other 6th district residents without administrative bottlenecks. The motivation for the arrangement was efficient governance and common courtesy. "

"We offered not to charge, per usual and customary practice for all elected officials regardless of political party," he added.

Arnold cited House Ethics rules stipulating a House member cannot ask for any gift of any value, writing, "The Mayor of Brookhaven explained that McBath 'approached' the City for office space, indicating she solicited the City. McBath's solicitation put the City in the difficult position of either denying the request of their Representative or committing an ethics violation."

"For instance, a Member is prohibited from asking for office space and then accepting free office space even though it would have been a permissible gift had it not been solicitated [sic]," Arnold wrote.

The Atlanta-Journal Constitution cited lawyer Robert Walker, a former House and Senate ethics committee staffer, who said FACT's interpretation was wrong:

He disagreed with FACT’s interpretation and said the situation falls under a separate rule in the congressional handbook that allows lawmakers to accept free office "when such space is provided by a federal, state, or local government agency." Meaning that McBath’s people were above board when they temporarily set up shop in Brookhaven’s community center.

Arnold told the Free Beacon Walker gave an "absolutely wrong legal analysis that is ridiculous and is directly contradicted by the Ethics Manual."

"Once she solicits, she must pay," Arnold said.

McBath's office did not respond to requests for comment.

McBath ousted former Rep. Karen Handel (R., Ga.) in November to become the first Democrat to win a seat in the district since 1976. The district has had several prominent Republican representatives in the past 40 years, including former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, now-Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.), and Tom Price, who served in the Trump administration as Health and Human Services Secretary in 2017 before resigning.