Biden routes campaign cash to family, their firms

Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. has paid more than $2 million in campaign cash to his family members, their businesses and employers over the years, a practice that watchdogs criticize as rife with potential conflicts of interest.

The money largely flowed from the coffers of Mr. Biden’s failed presidential campaign during the past two years to a company that employs his sister and longtime campaign manager, Valerie Biden Owens, according to campaign disclosure filings.

The senator from Delaware also directed campaign legal work to a Washington lobbying and law firm founded by his son R. Hunter Biden, the disclosures show.

Putting family members and their companies on the political payroll is legal if the work is legitimate and charged at market rates, according to the Federal Election Commission. Still, public watchdog groups have long criticized such arrangements.

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“Even though legal within restraints, it’s not something I view as completely ethical,” said Craig Holman, legislative director for Public Citizen, a campaign finance watchdog organization. “Any candidate ought to shy away from that.”

Aides to Mr. Biden said all of the payments he has made to family members or their employers were aboveboard.

“While no Biden family members are being paid by the Obama-Biden campaign, one of Joe Biden´s greatest political strengths and secret weapon has always been his sister Valerie, starting with her role managing his David-versus-Goliath upset Senate victory in 1972,” said Biden spokesman David Wade.

“Valerie is a well-known and highly regarded political operative in Democratic politics in Delaware and nationally, and her firm has worked on top races from Michigan to Texas. End of story,” Mr. Wade said.

Mr. Biden is hardly alone among members of Congress whose campaigns hold close ties to family. FEC records also show that Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain’s political action committee, Straight Talk America, paid more than $15,000 in 2006 to his wife, Cindy.

McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers said the payment reimbursed Mrs. McCain for catering expenses she had covered in connection with an election night party.

The majority of Biden campaign money tied to family - $1.8 million - was for media consulting bills to Joe Slade White & Co., where Mrs. Owens is a top executive. The firm did not return telephone and e-mail messages.

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