Top Aide to Rep. John Lewis Again Skirts Ethics Rules

Watchdog group 'weighing' legal action over chief of staff's campaign treasurer role

Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.), right, with his chief of staff Michael Collins in 2008 / AP
January 18, 2017

The top aide to Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.) served dual roles in the congressman's office and on his 2016 reelection campaign, possibly running afoul of House ethics rules, public records show.

Michael Collins, Lewis' chief of staff, served as the campaign's treasurer in 2015 and 2016, according to Federal Election Commission records. Ethics rules bar senior House staffers from working in any fiduciary role for a political organization, including congressional campaigns.

Senior staff "may not receive any compensation for either providing legal services to a political organization, or for serving as an officer (such as treasurer) of such an organization," according to the House ethics manual.

That rule applies to all members of Congress and employees who earn the "senior staff" rate of pay; the salary threshold in 2015 was $121,956. According to congressional research service Legistorm, Collins made $167,000 that year.

"On its face it looks like a clear ethics violation that simply cannot be explained away," said former U.S. Attorney Matthew Whitaker.

Whitaker's conservative ethics watchdog group, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, is "weighing" an official complaint against Collins, Whitaker said in an email. The group "probably will pursue one," he added.

FEC filings show Lewis' campaign committee paid Collins $27,550 in "consulting fees" in 2015. Collins' personal financial disclosure form for that year, the latest publicly available disclosure, states he earned a $27,495 "salary" from the campaign.

Those payments appear to have been designed to meet the outside income cap for senior House staffers. But Collins' reported income for 2015 actually exceeded the $27,225 limit for that year. In an apparent oversight, his 2015 compensation instead aligned with the 2016 outside income cap of $27,495, the exact sum that Collins reported in his annual financial disclosure.

Though he did not serve as treasurer in prior years, FEC filings show Collins consulted for Lewis' campaign committee and was compensated the exact amount of the outside income cap for those years.

From 2012 to 2014, the cap was $26,955. During those three years, Collins reported salary payments from the campaign of $26,955, $26,955, and $26,500, respectively.

The prohibition on senior staff serving as campaign treasurers was designed to avoid just the sorts of professional arrangements whereby senior congressional staffers are in positions to write themselves salary checks, explained Craig Engle, a partner at the D.C. law firm Arent Fox.

"The [FEC] and Congress have declared that fiduciary responsibilities for a campaign are not appropriate for highly paid staffers," Engle said in a Tuesday interview. "They don't want a staffer in the position of making disbursements or being responsible legally for the paperwork for another government agency, the FEC."

Engle said he advises congressional clients against appointing official staffers as campaign treasurers, but added that he saw no indication of intentional unethical conduct on the parts of Collins or the Lewis campaign.

"This is just being careless, and they should fix it," he said.

Carelessness was Collins' explanation for previous ethical lapses. The House Ethics Committee officially sanctioned him in 2011 for failing to disclose or pay taxes on $54,000 in outside income for work on Lewis' campaigns.

"These mistakes were not intentional but were due to an inadvertent omission in disclosure," he said at the time. "Regardless, I fully recognize that as a senior staff member in the U.S. House of Representatives and most importantly as a chief of staff, it is my responsibility to know and follow the rules of financial disclosure."

Collins and a Lewis spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment on his role as treasurer and payments he received from the campaign in subsequent years.

In addition to his work for Lewis, Collins is an unpaid board member of a nonprofit group that has received tens of thousands of dollars in payments from Lewis' campaign committee.

FEC records show the committee has paid the Faith & Politics Institute more than $50,000 since 2002 in the form of general contributions to the group and tickets to its events.

The institute regularly hosts "experiential pilgrimages, weekly reflection groups, weekend retreats and public forums," according to its website. Its events have previously been scrutinized for providing private companies and special interest groups access to members of Congress.

Engle said he saw no evidence that anything improper occurred in the Lewis campaign's contributions to the group, but added that they demonstrated the rationale for prohibitions on staffers serving in fiduciary roles.

"This is one of the reasons that the law says that a campaign staffer shouldn't be the treasurer of the campaign," Engle said. "It creates these questions that are easily avoided by not being the treasurer."

Published under: Ethics