House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has directed nearly $100,000 from her political action committee to her husband's real estate and investment firm over the past decade, a practice of paying a spouse with political donations that she supported banning last year.
The payments have quadrupled since Mr. Pelosi took over as treasurer of his wife's committee in 2007, Federal Election Commission records show. FLS is on track to take in $48,000 in payments this year alone - eight times as much as it received annually from 2000 to 2005, when the committee was run by another treasurer.
Lawmakers' frequent use of campaign donations to pay relatives emerged as an issue in the 2006 election campaigns, when the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal gave Democrats fodder to criticize Republicans such as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and Rep. John T. Doolittle of California for putting their wives on their campaign and PAC payrolls for fundraising work.
Last year, Mrs. Pelosi supported a bill that would have banned members of Congress from putting spouses on their campaign staffs. The bill - which passed the House in a voice vote but did not get out of a Senate committee - banned not only direct payments by congressional campaign committees and PACs to spouses for services including consulting and fundraising, but also "indirect compensation," such as payments to companies that employ spouses.
"Democrats are committed to reforming the way Washington does business," Mrs. Pelosi said in a press release at the time. "Congressman [Adam] Schiff's bill will help us accomplish that goal by increasing transparency in election campaigns and preventing the misuse of funds."
Last week, Mrs. Pelosi's office said the payments to her husband's firm were perfectly legal, insisting she is compensating her husband at fair market value for the work his firm has performed for the PAC. But ethical watchdogs said the arrangement sends the wrong message.
"It's problematic," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonprofit ethics and watchdog group. "From what I understand, Mr. Pelosi doesn't need the money, but this isn't the issue. ... As speaker of the House, it sends the wrong message. She shouldn't be putting family members on the payroll."
A senior adviser to Mrs. Pelosi described the payments to FLS as "business expenses."
"She's followed all the appropriate rules and regulations in terms of records and paperwork," said Brendan Daly, Mrs. Pelosi's spokesman. "When [former treasurer] Leo McCarthy became ill, she thought that it was best that that firm did the accounting and she's paid fair market value in San Francisco."
Between 1999 and 2006, FLS collected $500 per month to cover rent, utilities and equipment for the leadership PAC, according to the FEC records. The PAC's address is listed as a personal mailbox in San Francisco, across the street from FLS's Montgomery Street office building, but the rent payments went to an office space.
In early 2007, the PAC's treasurer, Leo T. McCarthy, former Democratic speaker of the state assembly and lieutenant governor in California, died. Mr. Pelosi took over as treasurer and his company's PAC payouts rose.
At that point, FLS started charging the PAC $24,000 per year for accounting work. In January 2008, the PAC's rent - paid to FLS - also quadrupled from $500 to $2,000 per month.
Mr. McCarthy, the previous treasurer, had done the work as a volunteer, according to FEC documents and Jennifer Crider, a senior adviser to Mrs. Pelosi and spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She said FLS' accounting fees are in line with costs for other PACs.
The jump in rent was an adjustment to reflect San Francisco's pricey real estate market, Miss Crider said. The rent was adjusted to $1,250 per month, with $750 in back rent to reflect that the rent should have been increased in mid-2007. This was the first increase since the PAC was established in mid-1999, records show.
Over the first six months of 2008, FLS was the largest vendor for Mrs. Pelosi's PAC. Brian Wolff, a political consultant, is the second-largest vendor, bringing in $22,500 this year.
FLS' payments represent 11 percent of the $213,900 the PAC raised over the first half of this year, according to the FEC documents.
PACs, which are designed to help politicians contribute to other candidates and build influence with colleagues, operate under lighter restrictions than traditional campaign committees.
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said putting family members on a PAC payroll is bound to raise questions and, in some cases, allow for abuse.
"The reality is that under the current system, PACs are rife with self-dealing transactions," she said. "The laws and regulations could and should be strengthened.
"There is a point now that you're starting to talk about real money," she said of Mrs. Pelosi's PAC. "This is not just a mom-and-pop operation and any self-dealing transaction by a member of Congress is going to get scrutiny, particularly with large amounts of money and prominent members."
It is illegal for members of Congress to hire family members to work on their official staff, but hiring relatives to work on a campaign or PAC is legal.
To be sure, many political action committees employ or work with family businesses. Last year, CREW found that 19 members of Congress used campaign committees or PACs to purchase services from a family member between 2002 and 2006.
Mrs. Pelosi's PACs have been in trouble before. In 2004, one of her political action committees, Team Majority, was fined $21,000 by the FEC for accepting donations over federal limits. It was one of two PACs she operated at the same time. The Team Majority PAC was closed shortly after the fine was levied.