Saturday March 24, 2012

A far-reaching report by a Washington, D.C.-based ethics group lists U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and three other Bay State representatives among 82 members of Congress who used their positions to directly benefit their families.

The study, released this week, found that the representatives paid a total of $5.5 million in salaries and fees out of their campaign accounts to fam ily members during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles.

Neal’s campaign paid his son, Brendan Conway Neal, a total of $28,500 during the time period, according to the report, issued by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, or CREW, in Washington.

CREW spent nine months examining every member of the House for campaign spending, budget earmarks, office accounts and lobbying by any relatives. The group states that, while in most cases the spending is allowed under Federal Election Commission regulations, the study’s findings reinforce the need for further oversight of campaign spending.

"Some things that aren’t illegal may still raise serious ethical questions," Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, told the New York Times. "If donors really understood where their money is going, I think they would be aghast."

Lawmakers who use campaign funds to pay relatives should be required to disclose that the payment is going to a family member, Sloan said, and there should be more detailed accounting of reimbursements paid to lawmakers or their family members for campaign expenses.

Neal, who is currently seeking re-election in the new 1st Massachusetts District, de clined a request from The Eagle for an interview. His spokesman, however, issued a statement defending the payments to Neal’s son, Brendan Neal, who currently works as the director of community re lations at Springfield College, according to his LinkedIn profile.

"Brendan Neal is a highly regarded political strategist with years of experience on local, state and national campaigns," said William Trang hese in an email. "He helped manage the campaign, build a grassroots networks of supporters, and develop social media tools. Brendan is an invaluable surrogate for his father and was a major reason why the 2008 and 2010 elections were so successful."

In his publicly posted work history on LinkedIn, Brendan Neal says he spent a year working for U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s failed presidential campaign between 2003 and 2004 and then a year as a regional director for Kerry through 2005. He doesn’t list any work for his father’s campaign.

Criticism of the elder Neal’s fundraising has already figured prominently in the campaign rhetoric of his two opponents in the coming 1st District Democratic primary. Neal, a 12-term incumbent from Springfield, is challenged by Alford-based writer Bill Shein and former Pittsfield state Sen. Andrea Nuciforo Jr., both of whom have argued that Neal’s long reliance on donations from corporations and special interest groups to fund his campaign has left him too mired in "politics as usual" to be a true advocate for his constituents.

As of Dec. 29, the end of the last reporting period, Neal had $2.5 million worth of campaign cash on hand, almost 18 times more than his nearest opponent, Nuciforo, who had $136,000.

A 2011 Associated Press review found that Neal raised a higher percentage of funds from political action committees than any other member of the Massachusetts House delegation. He raised $535,450 from PACs during the current election cycle, according to analysis by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Neal’s campaign has brushed off criticism of his fundraising, saying the congressman welcomes financial support from all comers, but only votes in the best interest of those he represents.

While the payments to Neal’s son may raise eyebrows, according to the CREW report, it’s far from the most egregious example of candidates passing cash to their relatives.

Among the Massachusetts Delegation, Rep. Jim McGov ern’s campaign committee paid out the most to family members, with a total of $38,434 going to McGovern’s brother-in-law. Neal’s spending on family members came in second, followed by South Boston Democratic Rep. Step hen Lynch and Salem Demo cratic Rep. John Tierney, who each paid to relatives $3,331 and $794 respectively.

Across the country, some representatives paid family members six-figure salaries, including Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul, whose payments to six relatives totaled more than $300,000.

In all, the report includes 248 House members, representing 105 Democrats and 143 Republicans, about equal to their parties’ proportional makeup in the House. Law makers earned a mention if researchers were able to document any relative who served as a lobbyist, if the lawmaker or a relative had been paid a salary or consulting fee by the lawmaker’s campaign or official government ac counts, or received a campaign contribution from the House member’s campaign fund.

Among the studies other key findings about sitting members of the House:

n 20 Democrats and 24 Republicans have family members who lobby or are em ployed in government affairs.

n 42 Democrats and 48 Republicans have paid a family business, employer or associated nonprofit.

n 13 Democrats and 7 Republicans used their campaign money to contribute to a family member’s political campaign.

n 6 Democrats and 8 Republicans charged interest on personal loans they made to their own campaigns.

n 24 Democrats and 14 Republicans sent budget earmarks to a family business, employer or associated nonprofit.

Material from the New York Times was used in this report.

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