The rules of the US House of Representatives expressly forbid the use of footage from the House floor or committee hearings for political purposes. But that’s apparently lost on Eighth District DFL Representative Rick Nolan, who’s made an art form of blurring the lines between official and campaign activity.
The House Ethics committee manual states: “Broadcast coverage and recordings of House floor proceedings may not be used for any political purpose under House Rule 5, clause 2(c)(1). In addition, under House Rule 11, clause 4(b), radio and television tapes and film of any coverage of House committee proceedings may not be used, or made available for use, as partisan political campaign material to promote or oppose the candidacy of any person for public office.”
But that hasn’t stopped the Nolan campaign. The news section of RickNolanforCongress.com currently features a CSPAN video of Nolan on the House floor, titled “House passes Nolan defense amendments promoting lung cancer research.” The article below contains only a link to the video, so the campaign made a conscious decision to embed the CSPAN clip on their website.
On April 25, the campaign Facebook page posted a 60 Minutes story featuring Nolan, which also includes footage of Representative David Jolly speaking on the House floor. According to an August 2014 memo on campaign activity from the ethics committee, the campaign was required to strip those portions of the story: “If such footage is embedded in a third party article or news clip, the campaign may use the article or clip if otherwise appropriate, but must first remove the prohibited footage.”
In January 2015, the campaign shared a post from Nolan’s official Facebook page featuring a CSPAN clip of his swearing-in. This is problematic not only for the clip, but because it violates a rule prohibiting use of campaign resources for advertising or supporting official congressional offices, including contact information.
A 2012 ethics committee memo clarified that campaign sites may link to official sites only with a disclaimer: “Thank you for visiting my campaign [website, Twitter page, Facebook page]. If your intent was to visit my official House of Representatives [website, Twitter page, Facebook page] please click here [hyperlink]...Any Internet sites that do not use a specifically approved notification, such as the one above, may not contain a hyperlink or reference to a Member’s official Internet site.”
Nolan’s staff certainly understood the concept, because they properly directed people to his official Facebook page shortly after he took office in 2013. But the campaign shared posts from the official Facebook page several times, including one on May 7, 2015, that also listed contact information for Nolan’s congressional office.
While the general rule is complete separation between official and campaign resources, some official resources (e.g., photos) may be used by campaigns, but only after it is no longer in use on any official site. Nolan’s campaign has used many pictures on both official and campaign sites since 2013, which suggests use of official resources for political purposes and use of campaign resources for official purposes, both of which are prohibited.
For example, Nolan’s official Facebook page sports a picture of him getting a haircut. It was originally posted on January 24, 2014, and the campaign posted the same picture on July 9, 2015. While it’s doubtful the picture represents official activity, it is nonetheless currently on the official site along with dozens more images of a decidedly personal nature, the majority of which support the Nolan campaign narrative.
Nolan’s official website currently features the same picture of him hunting pheasants that he used in his 2012 campaign. (The 2011 post can still be found on the campaign’s Facebook page.) The photo on his campaign website titled “Rebuilding America and the Middle Class” is identical to the “Jobs and the Middle Class” picture currently on Nolan’s official website. The picture was first posted and still remains on his official Facebook page.
Such practices violate the longstanding prohibition against using taxpayer resources for campaign activity, according to Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.
“Using taxpayer money for campaign purposes is a clear black line that can’t be crossed. Taxpayers fund CSPAN, taxpayers fund Congress...You should not be using taxpayer resources to perpetuate keeping yourself in power. The rules are clear, and Members have a responsibility to ensure compliance.”
The House Committee on Ethics is tasked with “investigating and adjudicating allegations of misconduct and violations of rules, laws, or other standards of conduct.” A spokesperson for the committee declined comment, citing the need to avoid any appearance of partisanship.
“Typically, the ethics committee will simply direct them to remove the material. But if the Member does not comply or the committee feels this is an ongoing problem, they are able to take further action,” says McGehee.
The rules are clear that there must be a wall that separates the campaign from the official office, and any infraction is serious because that wall exists to prevent members of Congress from using “the power of the taxpayer purse” to benefit themselves.
Nolan’s case is of particular concern because it does not indicate an occasional lapse or error. McGehee says, “Obviously there is a pattern here where the lines between campaign and congressional activities are being repeatedly crossed.”
A member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Shelly Mategko is an award-winning journalist.