Five months after the Center for Public Integrity reported that four of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet members were willing to raise money for Democratic super PACs, the top Republican investigator in the House is asking for details.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is “investigating the frequency with which Cabinet Secretaries appear at super PAC events and whether government funds have been used for travel to and from these events,” according to a July 12 letter obtained by Politico.
In February, Obama reluctantly embraced super PACs and gave the go-ahead on a plan to allow senior campaign aides and top White House officials to fundraise for the nascent political advertising machines, which are legally allowed to collect unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and unions.
Issa made a request for travel documents by Cabinet members, despite the fact that to date, none are known to have appeared at any such events.
In the letter, which was sent to 18 heads of Cabinet departments and other agencies, Issa warns that super PAC fundraising could be part of “an orchestrated attempt to use government officials for partisan fundraising purposes.”
“Historically, the intersection between political and official events has led to a misuse of official government funds,” Issa wrote.
According to the Center report, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk all indicated that they were open to participation in super PAC fundraising activities on behalf of groups such as Priorities USA Action, which has been recently running scathing ads of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s tenure at private equity firm Bain Capital.
Requests for comment from the Cabinet officials were not immediately returned.
Issa’s request casts a wide net — in addition to asking for super PAC-specific information, the congressman also wants documents on attendance of administration officials at other political events.
His letter asks that officials fulfill the request no later than 5 p.m. on July 26.
Under federal law, government officials may not solicit campaign contributions — but that does not prohibit them from appearing at political fundraisers. They are also allowed to personally donate money to political groups and engage in a variety of partisan activities so long as they do so during their personal time and do not use government resources.
In February, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina defended the president’s change of heart, saying that Democrats “will not play by two sets of rules,” though he noted that the president, first lady and vice president would abstain from appearing at super PAC fundraising events.
And last month, Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. — both of whom may be under consideration as Romney’s vice presidential pick — were scheduled to speak at a Restore Our Future fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria luxury hotel in New York City.
While super PACs are prohibited from coordinating their expenditures with campaigns, the Federal Election Commission has ruled that federal candidates and office holders may ask for donations to super PACs up to $5,000 (so long as they don’t solicit money from corporations or unions). They are also permitted to appear at events where other people make such asks.
Other politicians have also mingled with their super PAC supporters.
For instance, Kentucky Republican House candidate Thomas Massie attended an event at the home of a donor to a super PAC that backed his campaign.
Democratic Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada, Al Franken of Minnesota and John Kerry of Massachusetts have all penned fundraising emails for Majority PAC, the main super PAC aiding Senate Democrats.
And next month, Rep. Connie Mack IV, R-Fla., is slated to appear at a fundraiser of a New York-based super PAC that is backing his U.S. Senate bid.