Congressman facing ethics flap

Staffers accuse Rep. Tim Murphy of wrongly mixing official duties, campaign work

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U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, who is seeking his third term in Congress, has mixed campaign activities and official government work in a manner that present and former staffers consider unethical or in violation of House rules, according to interviews with a half-dozen of them.

Some of those interviewed described the practices as routine, others as sporadic, but all said they were disturbed by the conduct. The allegations primarily concern the use of taxpayer-funded congressional staff and resources to do work they viewed as part of Mr. Murphy's political campaign.

That can be a difficult charge to prove because workers are permitted to perform campaign tasks when on voluntary personal time, and there is no clock they punch to switch time. But it's clear that multiple staff members believed that what they were instructed to do crossed an ethical line.

"I see someone in a very high office taking advantage of people and situations, and it's wrong," said Jayne O'Shaughnessy, the scheduler in his Mt. Lebanon district office since April 2005. "He's someone who should know better."

When presented with the accusations yesterday, Mr. Murphy, 54, a Republican from Upper St. Clair, neither denied nor confirmed them. Instead, he vowed to seek a congressional investigation of his own conduct.

"While it is interesting that these concerns have been raised one week before the election, I take all allegations of improper action very seriously," he said in a printed statement. "It is my goal to have all staff follow the rules regarding proper functions of this district office and as such will be bringing all of these concerns to the House ethics committee for a full review.

"I will cooperate and have instructed staff to fully cooperate in the review. It is my full expectation the House ethics committee will find there were no intentional acts of wrongdoing."

Ms. O'Shaughnessy, 63, was one of only two of the six staff members interviewed who were willing to be identified, and she was the only one who is a current staff member. Others, mostly in their 20s and Republicans like the congressman, have left within the past year and said it could harm their careers if they publicly criticized an influential congressman.

There is no indication that any formal complaints have been filed against Mr. Murphy, nor that there will be. He is in the middle of a re-election campaign in which he has been considered a heavy favorite over Democrat Chad Kluko, who said he instructed his own staff not to pursue the allegations of questionable ethics when they began hearing such reports in June.

Mr. Kluko, 45, of Monroeville, has aired complaints about how the legal methods of activity by incumbents, such as mailing privileges and official press releases, favor them for re-election, but he made no accusations of improprieties by Mr. Murphy.

"It has been my position that this is not the type of campaign we will run," Mr. Kluko said yesterday. "If these individuals truly believe there is illegal or unethical activity, there is a secret process" to file that information with the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, or ethics committee. Only in the most serious cases does that committee make public its investigations or findings against members.

But it was Mr. Kluko's former campaign manager, Marty Marks, who informed the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of the allegations a week ago. Mr. Marks said his role with the Kluko campaign ended last month because the campaign lacks sufficient funds for staffing. Despite Mr. Kluko's earlier instructions not to spread the allegations, Mr. Marks said he considered it important that they be examined.

The newspaper independently interviewed the Murphy staff members. Among their allegations:

Mr. Murphy and his campaign staff have frequently used his Mt. Lebanon office for campaign strategy sessions, and equipment like the office's fax, copier, camera and filing cabinets for campaign-related materials, instead of using his separate campaign office a few miles away.

Members of his taxpayer-paid staff have been expected to have campaign materials with them at all times when accompanying the congressman, in case he wants to provide them to constituents.

In sending congressional staff such as unpaid interns to perform door-knocking and drop off official literature throughout the district this summer, they were instructed to stop only at the homes of registered voters.

Multiple staff members from the district office were instructed last December to devote their time to labeling, stuffing and mailing greeting cards to individuals who were campaign contributors of Mr. Murphy's. The postage and materials were paid by his campaign fund, but several staffers said they performed the functions in the middle of the government workday, rather than on their own time.

Some of the alleged practices, such as the mix of staff time devoted to official business and campaign business, are in what is frequently seen as a gray area for congressional aides unless they are explicitly threatened with dismissal for failure to take part. Mr. Murphy stopped short of such compulsion, according to aides, though they felt pressured.

"Congressman Murphy would very often say, 'Don't you people care about your jobs? If I'm not re-elected, you don't have jobs,' " recalled Emily Campbell, a staff member from June 2003 to February 2006 who has relocated to Cleveland.

She said the use of staff time for holiday cards to donors was the most questionable activity she knew of the congressman directing, with "everyone expected to lend a hand." One of the staffers interviewed, however, viewed the work as being done on a voluntary basis.

House ethics rules for members say no campaign activities may take place in any congressional office, and use of office resources such as equipment, supplies or files is prohibited. The guidelines also say staff may do campaign work on their own time, but only outside the congressional office. They may not be compelled to do such work.

Even in cases where no rules or laws apply, staff members felt other things they were asked to do were wrong. Among those were visiting households to solicit people's concerns and advise how they could obtain help from the district office, but doing so only with those deemed likely to vote in upcoming elections.

"We'd skip the others, and they were all the congressman's constituents too," said one involved in the task, who did not want to be identified. "It's 100 percent unethical. That's while we were on official time with taxpayer dollars."

Officials of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, or ethics committee, are not permitted to address questions about rules violations, even hypothetically. That committee conducts investigations if it receives information its officials judge as meriting it, or if one member of Congress files a complaint against another.

No member of Congress may file such complaints within 60 days prior to an election, however, to prevent the process from being used as a campaign tactic. It was unclear, yesterday, how a complaint from a member reporting on himself would be handled.

Federal prosecutors sometimes investigate members of Congress for breaking the law, but the violations may have to meet a certain level of severity to be pursued.

"None of these alleged incidents individually stand out as shocking," said Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, when informed of the nature of the allegations. "You don't hear of a lot of investigation into these types of activities. Even though they may undermine the spirit of the law, they may nevertheless be difficult to prove."

But an official with another private group that monitors federal officials' campaign conduct said any such conduct is wrong, if true, and ought to be exposed.

"It's not OK, just because they may not find themselves prosecuted or brought before the ethics committee," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "You're not allowed to use taxpayer-funded machinery for campaign work, and no congressional office resources can be spent on campaign activities. ... Most members of Congress don't do this."

Authorities are typically more concerned if allegations arise that elected officials are doing fund raising from their government offices, which is not one of the accusations against Mr. Murphy. They also might be more interested, Mr. Ryan said, if larger amounts of taxpayer resources are expended than those that might have taken place involving Mr. Murphy's office.

In a recent case investigated by the State Ethics Commission, and prosecuted by the state attorney general's office because it was a non-federal official, direct fund-raising work by his employees on government time was among the charges that led to conviction of former state Rep. Jeffrey Habay, of Shaler. His own former employees leveled charges that led to the case against him, as they said they spent work hours organizing political fund-raisers, processing political mailings and telephoning supporters to seek donations, at Mr. Habay's direction.


Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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