WASHINGTON—Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who after leaving Congress has been lobbying for the government of Turkey, is using taxpayer money to fund his office in Illinois. In a posting on Monday, Beltway insider site Politico exposed Hastert’s double-dipping. We republish the piece for our readers.
Former Speaker Gets Pricey Perks
By: Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan
U.S. taxpayers are spending more than $40,000 per month on office space, staff, cell phones and a leased SUV for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, even as he works as a lobbyist for private corporations and foreign governments.
The payments are perfectly legal under a federal law that provides five years of benefits for former speakers — but only if Hastert never makes use of his government-funded perks in the course of his lobbying work. Ethics experts say that sort of separation is hard to maintain.
Hastert “has to be meticulous in his schedule to make sure there is no bleed from his publicly subsidized office into his private practice,” said Kenneth Gross, a former Federal Election Commission general counsel and congressional ethics authority. Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, called the arrangement “really concerning.”
“It is specifically prohibited — federal dollars can’t be spent on lobbying operations,” Ellis said. “We are paying for his staff [and] for a car, and we need to be very sure that he isn’t spending a dime of that money on lobbying operations. “That all needs to be above board, in the clear and transparent. And it’s not.”
Hastert declined to discuss the situation with POLITICO.
But his spokesman, Brad Hahn, said the former 11-term congressman is in full compliance with rules covering how the federal funds are spent. Hahn said Hastert’s lobbying work “is completely separate [from the office of the former speaker], and he keeps them completely separate.”
The federal government pays $6,300 per month to rent an office for Hastert and his staff in Yorkville, Ill. Hahn conceded that Hastert has no other office set aside for lobbying work in Illinois but said that the former speaker travels to Washington frequently for work.
In addition to the office, the government pays the salaries of three of Hastert’s assistants in his Illinois office — each more than $100,000 in 2008. Bryan Hardin, Hastert’s administrative assistant (the title often used by a chief of staff in a congressional office) earned $138,000.
“The office of the former speaker has specific functions that are tied to Denny being the former speaker, but he does not receive any compensation and is not an employee,” Hahn said. “There are three staffers that carry out the functions — archiving, correspondence, speaking engagements — and working with the Hastert Center” at Wheaton College.
House disbursement records show that the office is spending an additional $2,000 per month in taxpayer money on a consulting firm, Burnham Strategies, that is run by several of Hastert’s former staffers, including Hahn. Altogether, the firm was paid $30,000 through Sept. 30 of this year, records show.
Taxpayers also make the lease payments on a 2008 GMC Yukon and pay for a satellite TV subscription, cell phones, laptops and other expenses.
Since Hastert opened the Illinois office in early 2008, records show, the government has paid for five computer monitors at a total cost of $1,125, spent almost $1,300 for desks and shelled out an additional $4,460 for Hewlett-Packard laptops. Other expenditures include $745 for a printer and about $620 to transport a clock.
Hastert, who served in the House for almost 21 years, signed on with Dickstein Shapiro in 2008. He is now a registered foreign agent, representing in Washington the interests of the governments of Turkey and Luxembourg. He also lobbies on behalf of three U.S. corporations.
Democrats enacted new lobbying restrictions in 2007 in a bid to curb the influence of registered lobbyists after Hastert’s Republican colleagues were entangled in a slew of ethical and legal scandals. These restrictions curbed gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers and lawmaker travel paid for by federally registered lobbyists, and they instituted a period during which former members could not lobby Congress. But those measures do not prohibit what Hastert is doing now.
Under a federal statute enacted in 1974, former House speakers are entitled to an allowance to set up and run an office, a payment that includes salaries for several aides. In 1995, then newly empowered Republicans — who had seized control of the House for the first time in four decades — put a five-year deadline on this allowance, a move aimed at former Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.), who had lost his reelection bid the previous November.
The formula for calculating the allowance given to former speakers is based on that used by current lawmakers. Former speakers are prohibited from taking the funds only if they take some other “appointive or elected office or position” in the federal or D.C. government, according to a 2007 Congressional Research Service report.
Hahn said Hastert is authorized to spend as much as $840,000 annually to run his office but has not used all the money made available to him by Congress. “He’s worked on a nonpaid basis, but as a former speaker, [Hastert] helped out with the Chicago Olympic bid, Advance Illinois [an education program] and Illinois Works,” a jobs program, Hahn added. “These are nonlobbying and nonpaid. These are duties he was asked to help [on as] official causes — because he was a former speaker and to add his expertise.”
Hastert is not the first former speaker to become a lobbyist. Foley worked as a lobbyist for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld after serving as U.S. ambassador to Japan, representing clients such as AT&T, Walt Disney Co., CSX Corp. and the State University of New York. Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat who was speaker from 1987 to 1989, was a consultant for Arch Petroleum Co., although it is unclear if he was ever a registered lobbyist, said the Office of the Historian of the House. Other former speakers, including Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich, never registered as lobbyists.
When he retired from Congress two years ago, Hastert told an Illinois newspaper he would go back home and unwind from nearly three decades in public office. Hastert predicted, “I don’t really see myself as a lobbyist and would probably not do that at all.”