Monday, October 23, 2006

Ex-aide alleges Porter made illegal fundraising calls

Las Vegas SUN
Ex-aide alleges Porter made illegal fundraising calls
By Tony Cook

Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., made dozens of campaign fundraising phone calls last spring from his district and Washington, D.C., offices, according to a former Porter staffer and e-mails obtained by the Sun.

The former staffer, Jim Shepard, a 10-year veteran of Capitol Hill who worked briefly for Porter this year, said he witnessed Porter making the calls on at least five different dates last spring. Such calls would violate federal election laws and House ethics rules.

Porter's top congressional aide strongly denied that the congressman made such calls.

"The accusations being printed by your paper are completely false and baseless," Mike Hesse, Porter's chief of staff, said Friday in an e-mail to the Sun. "They rely solely on the claims of one former, disgruntled staffer who is lying. I believe that unbiased observers will question the legitimacy of the story and its sole source."

An e-mail obtained by the Sun shows that Shepard warned Porter's top staffers that the alleged political calls could become a major problem.

"We can NOT let him do this anymore," Shepard wrote in a June 18 e-mail to Hesse.

On another occasion, Shepard said Hesse responded to his concerns by chastising him for putting them in writing.

Hesse said he has no recollection of that e-mail. He also refused to discuss Shepard's allegations in detail unless the Sun provided him with copies of the e-mails. The Sun declined to do so, though a reporter did tell Hesse what the e-mails said.

Federal law makes it "unlawful for an individual who is an officer or employee of the federal government, including the President, Vice President, and Members of Congress, to solicit or receive a donation of money or other thing of value in connection with a Federal, State, or local election, while in any room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties by an officer or employee of the United States, from any person."

The law carries a penalty of up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

U.S. House of Representatives ethics rules specifically ban soliciting campaign contributions in or from any House office, room or building.

"A telephone solicitation from a House office or building would not be permissible merely because the call is billed to a credit card of a political organization or to an outside telephone number, or because it is made using a cell phone in the hallway," the House Campaign Booklet says.

Lawmakers have been especially careful to avoid making phone calls from congressional offices since Vice President Al Gore became embroiled in a 1997 controversy surrounding dozens of calls that he made from his office in the White House.

Although a controversial decision by then-Attorney General Janet Reno cleared Gore, the ethical questions surrounding his fundraising calls continued to dog his unsuccessful presidential bid. The furor surrounding his money-raising practices - and those of President Bill Clinton and the Democratic National Committee - set in motion campaign finance reforms that helped strengthen the ban on soliciting political contributions from federal offices.

On each of the five dates in question, Porter made five to 15 fundraising calls, said Shepard, who was the congressman's executive assistant and scheduler from March to the end of June.

"He made fundraising calls both from his D.C. congressional office and his district office in Henderson," Shepard said. "While I worked for him, he did it at least five times. I was personally there."

Shepard said he witnessed Porter make fundraising calls with a campaign cell phone from his Henderson office on April 17, 18 and 21 in anticipation of President Bush's fundraising visit to Las Vegas for the two-term Republican congressman April 24. On two days in mid-June, Porter, again using a campaign phone, made fundraising calls from his Washington office, Shepard said.

During some of those calls, Shepard said he took notes while sitting directly across from Porter at his desk in his Henderson and Washington offices. Porter used call sheets provided by his campaign, Shepard said. The call sheets included specific "asks" - amounts of money that Porter would request the potential donor to contribute, Shepard said. While the calls were being made, Shepard would sometimes e-mail Porter's campaign staff to inform them of specific amounts of money donors had committed to give.

"I was shocked and appalled at Porter's blatant disregard of the law," said Shepard, who before working for Porter served on the staffs of Sen. Jon Ensign, R-Nev., and Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn.

Now a consultant living in Virginia, he said he is not working on any Nevada campaigns this fall.

Porter has refused to speak to the Sun about this story.

Even though they were made with campaign cell phones, the alleged calls would violate federal election law and House ethics rules, according to political and legal experts. The critical fact, they say, is not which phones were used, but the locations where the calls originated.

Because campaign laws and ethics rules prohibit lawmakers from making calls from their offices, political parties have set up phone banks at party headquarters near congressional offices.

Porter's House office is in a prime position, just across the street from his party's Washington headquarters.

In a Sept. 19 story, Lisa Mascaro, the Sun's Washington correspondent, wrote about Porter making weekly fundraising calls from the phones at GOP headquarters.

Any campaign fundraising calls made from Porter's official government offices would violate the law, legal and campaign experts said.

"If he did it knowingly and willfully, then it would be a violation," said Jan Baran, former general counsel to the Republican National Committee.

Richard Morgan, dean of UNLV's Boyd School of Law, said that, in general, a campaign fundraising call placed from a district or Washington congressional office violates federal law.

"It doesn't say it matters what phone you are using," he said.

Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, said Porter clearly broke the law if Shepard's accusations are true.

"Anyone who ... even makes fundraising phone calls from a federal office is violating the law," he said. "Members of Congress are well aware that it is illegal."

Hesse made a blanket denial of Shepard's allegations.

"In regard to that charge, we follow all rules and regulations as they pertain to federal elections to the letter," he said in an interview. "There have never been any calls from the district office or the Washington office."

But Shepard said he raised concerns about the calls on several occasions, including in the e-mail that drew a rebuke from Hesse over creating an electronic "paper" trail.

"I don't recall him doing that," Hesse said. "I am not saying he didn't, but I would have remembered something like that."

In an April 17 e-mail from Shepard to Porter's deputy chief of staff, Brook Allmon, Shepard asked her to change the congressman's schedule for the next day to clear time for Porter to make fundraising calls from his Henderson office because Porter did not want to make the 20-mile drive to the Summerlin office of November Inc., the company he used for campaign consulting.

"Would you please update the schedule to reflect call time from the office? They don't want to go to Nov Inc.," Shepard wrote.

Porter was under pressure from his campaign to squeeze in as many calls as possible before Bush's visit, Shepard said.

On June 18, Shepard expressed his concerns about the campaign fundraising calls from Porter's Washington office.

"We can NOT let him do this anymore... The U.S. Criminal Codes makes it unlawful to solicit or to receive any political contribution in any building where Federal employees work (18 U.S. Code 607)," Shepard wrote to Hesse.

Shepard said he resigned June 29 because of concerns about the phone calls and other issues.

"I could not continue to work for a legislator that I did not respect and who did not follow the law," Shepard said.

He said he knows and respects Porter's opponent, Democrat Tessa Hafen, but is not working on her campaign.

He said November Inc. employee Mary Mai also was present when Porter made some of the fundraising calls from his government office.

"I would prefer not to make a comment," she told the Sun. "I no longer work for the campaign."

Hesse concluded his e-mail to the Sun by writing: "It is important to remember that your newspaper has contributed $22,600 to Congressman Porter's opponent and has recently endorsed her."

The Sun does not make political contributions. The editor of the Sun, Brian Greenspun, and his wife, Myra, have personally contributed a total of $6,400 to Hafen. Other members of the Greenspun family, none of whom has any management authority over the Sun, have contributed an additional $14,900 to Hafen's campaign. Another family member has contributed $1,000 to Porter. The Sun has endorsed Hafen.