Tlaib ordered to pay campaign $10,800, but House ethics panel finds no 'ill intent'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Democratic U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit received about $17,500 from her campaign after she was elected in 2018 that violated federal election laws, but the violation is "one of bad timing and not ill intent," according to a U.S. House Ethics Committee report released Friday. 

The bipartisan committee ordered her to return $10,800 of the $17,500 to her campaign to account for the portion she received from the campaign after she had been elected to Congress. 

"The committee did not find that she sought to unjustly enrich herself by receiving the campaign funds at issue," the U.S. House Committee on Ethics wrote Friday.

The committee has a 5-4 split of Democrats and Republicans, but the decision to adopt the report was unanimous.

The congresswoman is happy the committee decided against sanctions and recognized her "good faith efforts to comply with applicable laws and regulations," Tlaib's office said Friday. 

“Rep. Tlaib hopes the Federal Election Commission will issue updated guidance and clarify a well-intended rule that gives candidates like Rep. Tlaib the opportunity to see federal office," Tlaib's office said in a statement.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.

The report comes three days after a bitter primary re-election fight between Tlaib and Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones. Tlaib won 66% to 34% and was endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California. 

The Friday order related to a 2019 complaint alleging the Detroit Democrat took payments from her campaign after the Nov. 6, 2018, election but before she took office. 

Candidates under federal regulations can receive salary payments from their own campaign, but they must be for work performed through the date of the election.

The committee said Friday it reviewed more than 600 pages of material and interviewed five witnesses in its review of Tlaib's actions.

The committee noted the payments Tlaib received during her campaign were "well below the legal threshold for the maximum amount of salary she was eligible to receive." Still, Tlaib has a year from Friday to repay the $10,800 paid to her from the date of the report.  

Tlaib's 2017 salary before running for Congress was $129,357 for her work at the Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice.

Starting in May 2018, when Tlaib began campaigning in earnest for the 13th Congressional District, she scaled back her hours at Sugar Law Center to about seven hours a week and realized she "was going to have some issues paying (her) bills," the committee report said. 

Tlaib's campaign staff sought legal advice and worried about the political ramifications when Tlaib in April 2018 asked for a stipend. 

Her campaign staff eventually agreed to pay her $7,900 a month, which would partially replace what she received in income in 2017, but Tlaib chose to receive $4,000, according to the report. 

By July 2018, the "press" began reporting on the payments, according to the committee report, but the campaign continued making the payments because they were allowed to do so under federal law and because Tlaib needed the money. 

Within days of the election, Tlaib's campaign paid her $2,000 on Nov. 16, then issued a $15,500 check to Tlaib on Dec. 1, 2018. 

The payment was in part "back pay" to Tlaib because she received less than the legal threshold during her campaign, witnesses told the ethics committee. 

But, the committee noted, "it is unclear when Representative Tlaib entered into an agreement to receive 'back pay' or 'deferred compensation' from the campaign."

The committee allowed Tlaib to keep $800 paid for the week before the election and $5,900 allegedly meant as "back pay" and ordered her to return the remaining $10,800 paid after her election to her campaign.

Tlaib "had an obligation to act in accordance with the the strict technical requirements" of federal law and "act in a manner consistent with the more general ethical standards of the House," the report said.