WASHINGTON -- The latest attack ad from Sen. Arlen Specter in his increasingly heated Democratic primary fight with Rep. Joe Sestak targets the Delaware County congressman on how much he pays his employees.
The pay is indisputably low, but whether it's criminal, as the Specter campaign claims, is questionable.
The Sestak campaign insists it is following the law -- while charging that Mr. Specter's allegations are distracting from meaningful policy debate -- noting that campaign workers often are provided with free housing and work for a stipend, not a salary or hourly wage.
But not factoring in additional benefits, based on a Post-Gazette review of the Sestak campaign's first quarter filing with the Federal Elections Commission, 12 employees -- if they worked 40 hours a week -- did not make minimum wage in February. Several others aren't paid much more.
The campaign paid employees as little as $1.57 per hour before taxes, assuming a full-time workload. The Sestak campaign would not confirm whether any of the employees in question were part time or split between the campaign and congressional staff of the second-term representative from Delaware County.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and the Department of Labor provided the Post-Gazette a legal document this week that states campaign workers fall under the Fair Labor Standards Act if they perform acts such as making phone calls out of state, cashing out-of-state checks, or drafting reports or statements that are disseminated outside the state -- all common activities of a political campaign. Though the legal document was first drafted in 1977, a Department of Labor spokesman said the department stands by the findings.
The Department of Labor would not comment on the specific case of the Sestak campaign, nor would the department say if anyone has raised a federal wage complaint -- which typically is lodged by a current or former employee.
Mr. Sestak -- who often rails against his opponent's "baseless" attacks -- said in a statement that the campaign should be more about policy and he's proud of his employees.
"Everyone working here could be making more money elsewhere," Mr. Sestak said. "The great men and women who work for my campaign are one of the best things I have going for me. Of course my campaign is following the law, but the truth isn't going to stop Arlen Specter from smearing me.
"It's a typical Republican tactic for Arlen Specter to attack me on this, even though Specter is the one who voted to eliminate overtime pay for many workers and allow employers to not pay the minimum wage to some workers."
The campaign sent a reporter's legal queries to Philadelphia labor attorney Michael Homans, who had informally advised the campaign on the issue, Sestak spokesman Jonathon Dworkin said.
Mr. Homans, a Sestak supporter, said the law in this area is unsettled, and campaign employees should be treated differently.
"They're not doing this for a job, but to volunteer and help a campaign they believe in," Mr. Homans said. "The fact that the Sestak campaign gives them a little bit of spending money as a thank-you for doing this, I don't think takes them into the realm" of having to pay all of them minimum wage.
The campaign often found free housing for staff members in the homes of campaign supporters -- a common practice in politics -- which Mr. Homans said should be taken into account in any wage calculations. It also provides health benefits.
The three highest-paid members of Mr. Sestak's staff in the first quarter were three of his siblings: political director Rich Sestak, treasurer Margaret Infantino and Elizabeth Sestak. The trio has worked for Mr. Sestak since his first congressional campaign in 2006, and each makes more than $3,000 per month. Mr. Dworkin said they, like everyone else, could make more elsewhere.
The campaign has experienced high turnover, and several former Sestak employees have said low pay was a factor in their departures.
Mr. Sestak's campaign spent a little more than half the amount the Specter campaign spent on payroll.
According to a review of the Specter campaign's finances, all of its full-time staff members are paid well above minimum wage. Several split their time between campaign duties and congressional work for Mr. Specter in his offices in Pennsylvania and Washington. Split staffers are paid by both the campaign and the taxpayers, in proportion with how much work they are doing for each, said Specter campaign manager Chris Nicholas.
Mr. Nicholas has repeatedly criticized Mr. Sestak's pay practices.
"The critical thing here is he obviously has the money," Mr. Nicholas said. "You know how he boasts about having [$5 million cash on hand]. ... He must be comfortable with having a TV ad rather than paying above the minimum to qualify for food stamps."
Mr. Dworkin said Mr. Specter's attacks on Mr. Sestak's Navy service -- a Sestak ad response, first aired Thursday, called accusations of a "poor command climate" a lie -- and staff pay are a distraction from important issues like the economy.
"The issue is the type of campaign that Specter's running, and frankly feels that he has to run because he doesn't have a leg to stand on with Democratic voters," Mr. Dworkin said.
"He can't run on his record, [so] he make some kind of ridiculous attack."
Mr. Sestak and Mr. Specter will debate at 7 p.m. Saturday in Philadelphia, airing locally on WTAE and the Pennsylvania Cable Network.
Daniel Malloy: firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.