Michael Steele’s convention ‘liaison,’ Belinda Cook, responds to critics on spending

Jonathan Strong Jonathan Strong, 27, is a reporter for the Daily Caller covering Congress. Previously, he was a reporter for Inside EPA where he wrote about environmental regulation in great detail, and before that a staffer for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). Strong graduated from Wheaton College (IL) with a degree in political science in 2006. He is a huge fan of and season ticket holder to the Washington Capitals hockey team. Strong and his wife reside in Arlington.
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Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele’s former personal assistant, Belinda Cook — who is now heading preparations for the party’s 2012 national convention from a waterfront mansion in Treasure Island, Fla. — is responding to criticisms on the seemingly lavish spending and rampant cronyism that has drawn calls for investigation by a key GOP official.

In a letter from three top convention officials, including Cook, and an attached memo from the convention treasurer, Luis Pope, the embattled crew lay out their case that the high level of spending is consistent with recommendations from past convention managers to begin the preparations for the convention six months earlier.

“Based on recommendations from RNC members and lessons learned documents written by the managers of the 2008 Committee on Arrangements (COA), planning for the 2012 Convention began a full six months earlier than previous conventions,” the memo from Pope says.

The defense is not assuaging a key critic, Solomon Yue, a member of the RNC’s executive committee, the top rung of power beneath the chairman in the RNC’s power structure. Yue said late Tuesday he still intends to call a special session of the executive committee to examine the contracts.

The issue is important because critics of Steele, who has not yet said whether he will run for reelection as RNC chairman, have seized on the spending to hammer home their argument his tenure has been a fiscal disaster.

Steele installed Cook as the RNC’s “liaison to the convention.” She received a $25,000 signing bonus and salary of $180,000. The party is also paying rent on a 3,200 square foot waterfront mansion with private pool and dock for Cook to reside in.

Cook’s qualifications for the position are unknown. Her sister Betina Barcus, niece Pamela Kesner, former assistant and close friend Grace Cushing, son Lee Cook and son’s college friend Erik Rohrmann are also on the payroll, all at eyebrow-raising salaries. The response from Cook and co. does not address charges of cronyism.

Six convention staffers are working from Tampa, nearly a year earlier than convention staff moved from Washington, D.C. to Minneapolis-St. Paul for the 2008 convention.

“At the request of the Host Committee and the urging of past convention managers, key staff relocated to Tampa immediately in August of 2010,” Pope says in his memo, citing a quote from a “Lessons Learned” binder prepared by the 2008 convention officials.

The claim is at odds with those convention officials have told The Daily Caller. Jeff Larson, CEO of the Host Committee for the 2008 convention, said “The recommendations we gave had nothing to do with bringing your team in earlier.”

Pope cites a quote from the “Lessons Learned” binder from Maria Cino, “As fun as it is to stay in D.C. and not move to another city right away … it’s much easier for all staff to be in the same city from the beginning.” The binder is not available and the fuller context of the quote is unknown.

To show that the current spending levels are normal and, indeed, “less at the same stage” as in 2008, Pope compares spending on the 2008 convention over a 10-month period to spending on the 2012 convention over a five month period.

Specifically, a chart lists spending from January 2007 to October 2007, 10 months, as compared to August 2010 to January 2011, five months, including two months that have not yet passed.

In the 10-month period in 2007, the Committee on Arrangements spent $1.8 million, while in the five-month period in 2010, the Committee on Arrangements spent $784,386.

In making the case that the RNC is spending “less at the same stage” in their letter, Cook, Pope and Holly Hughes, the chair of the Site Selection Committee, note that one “area of greater expense is in legal bills, and that is because so many hotel and venue contracts have been negotiated and signed much earlier.”

Specifically, so far Steele’s convention managers have spent more than double on legal bills in the five-month period than over the 10-month period in 2007. The amount in 2012 is $210,000. One Republican source called TheDC unprompted early Wednesday in wonderment at that figure. “There’s no way in hell there’s that much paperwork,” the source said.

The letter from Cook, Pope and Hughes says “The COA currently has just six people on staff, including interns.” In FEC filings, two staff are listed receiving “intern stipends.” One, Cory Sprunger, is receiving modest pay in line with typical stipend amounts for interns in political jobs. The other, Cook’s niece Pamela Kesner, was paid at a rate in September equating to a salary of $50,852.

The letter from Cook, Pope and Hughes notes that Republican donors should fear not, because ultimately, it will be taxpayers who foot the bill for the waterfront mansion and $50k-a-year intern niece.

Noting that expenses have been paid from a $1 million credit line, the letter says the Committee on Arrangements will “pay back that $1MM line of credit in full, next summer when the COA receives the roughly $16 million in federal funds provided to fund both the Republican and Democrat 2012 Conventions.”

Yue, the RNC executive committee member who is pushing for an investigation into the spending, notes that neither Cook, Hughes nor Pope are chairman of the Committee on Arrangements and therefore do not have authority on their own to make key spending decisions.

“Louis did not give me any reason not to call for a special meeting of executive committee,” Yue said about Pope’s memo.

Cook did not respond to a request for comment.