Top Republican officials are outraged at Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele’s latest – and potentially last – spending scandal.
This time, Steele paid his former personal assistant, Belinda Cook, tens of thousands of dollars to begin work on the 2012 Republican convention in Tampa, Fla.
Cook’s qualifications for such a key position are unknown. Her son and sister are also on the payroll, and the GOP is paying rent on a posh waterfront mansion for Cook to reside in.
Solomon Yue, a member of the RNC’s Executive Committee, the top rung under the chairman in the committee’s power structure, is demanding an investigation into the suspicious spending.
“When Tea Party activists talk about changing Washington, they mean getting rid of these kind of ‘politics as usual’ practices,” Yue told The Daily Caller. “As a member of the RNC Executive Committee, it is our fiduciary responsibility under the Good Governance resolution to look into all those contracts in order to bring back the check and balance practice.”
Top Republicans hostile to the embattled RNC chairman say the latest round of recriminations are the final nail in Steele’s coffin, though Steele hasn’t said whether he will run again for chairman.
At issue are critical preparations for the national convention each party holds every four years. The conventions are massive undertakings with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. Thousands of party activists stream into town and byzantine campaign laws complicate fundraising efforts. The conventions also offer each party its most high-profile effort to market their respective presidential candidates to the country.
To head this effort, Steele installed his former personal assistant, Cook, as the RNC’s “liaison to the convention.” The Washington Times first reported that GOP insiders were unhappy with the seemingly extravagant compensation she was receiving – a $25,000 signing bonus and salary of $180,000.
The Committee on Arrangements for the 2012 Republican National Convention, the legally separate organization from the RNC that is paying Cook, is also apparently paying rent on a waterfront mansion for Cook to reside in.
The payments as listed in Federal Election Commission filings are ostensibly to Sun Vista Realty. Three GOP officials close to the situation confirm the payments are for a waterfront mansion on South Yacht Drive in Treasure Island, Fla. Public records confirm Cook is living at the address.
The 3,143 square foot house features a private pool and dock. Including the garage and open porch, the house is over 4,200 square feet. A spokesman for Steele did not reply to a request for comment.
In the 2008 cycle, top convention officials did not move to the host city until April 2008. When they did, they lived in sparse, one bedroom apartments one or two blocks from the convention site.
Steele is facing charges of cronyism for Cook’s extravagant salary and accommodations. But also on the payroll are Cook’s son, Lee, and sister, Betina Barcus, who has been paid over $25,000 for “hotel management consulting.”
The payments to Cook’s sister are listed in FEC filings as going to “BB Consulting,” a firm which holds the same address as the home of John and Betina Barcus in Denton, Md., according to state property records.
Three GOP sources confirm Barcus is Cook’s sister. The Lexis Nexis historical address database shows Barcus and Cook share the same maiden name, Kesner, and are around the same age.
All told, the extended Cook family received $106,291 in known compensation from the Committee on Arrangements in the three month period from July 1 to Sept. 30.
“All this is very troubling from out of control deficit spending, lack of accountability, potential violation of the RNC Good Governance resolution, to practicing cronyism in hiring,” Yue said.
The party’s lavish spending on convention officials is coming much earlier in the election cycle than for past conventions. The Washington Post reported that the spending is 18 times the amount spent from the comparable period in the 2008 cycle.
Doug Heye, a spokesman for Steele, defended the early spending to the Post, saying the decisions were based on the recommendation from past convention officials to accelerate the process of picking a convention city.
But the officials who made that recommendation say Heye’s explanation is bogus.
Instead, they told the RNC to accelerate the process to facilitate fundraising, not to start spending on preparations earlier.
“The recommendations we gave had nothing to do with bringing your team in earlier,” said Jeff Larson, the CEO of the Host Committee for the 2008 convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
The idea was to begin fundraising in time for another year of corporate budgets, allowing donors to spread their contributions over a greater period of time.
“After the 2008 convention, between the Host Committee and the Committee on Arrangements, our recommendations was to move the selection of the host city up six months to allow them to solicit corporate contributions in a two year budget cycle rather than a one year budget cycle as they’d done before,” Larson said.
Meanwhile, Republican insiders are murmuring the RNC may face additional undisclosed debts.
During the midterm campaign, the RNC incurred $15 million in debt. But tales abound of vendors owed as much as $2 million being told to delay sending invoices to the RNC.
Steele’s opponents are increasingly confident they will be able to stop him if he runs again. One insider said the “anybody but Steele” votes have reached a numerical critical mass.