- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Michael S. Steele, Republican National Committee chairman, is using his title to market himself for paid appearances nationwide, personally profiting from speeches with fees of up to $20,000 at colleges, trade associations and other groups - an unusual practice criticized by a string of past party chairmen.

Mr. Steele, elected in January to the $223,500-a-year RNC post, is working with at least four outside agencies in Washington, New York, Boston and Nashville, Tenn., that book the speaking engagements. He charges between $8,000 and $20,000 for an address, plus first-class travel and lodging expenses.

One of the booking agencies, Leading Authorities — Great Events Start Here, with offices in Washington and Chicago, has a color photo of Mr. Steele on its Web site, where he is advertised as “Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland.”

Harry Sandler, who handles Mr. Steele’s bookings at Newton, Mass.-based American Program Bureau, told The Washington Times that Mr. Steele “tends” to charge between $10,000 and $15,000 for an appearance and that he received roughly that amount for a Sept. 21 speech at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. Mr. Steele has an upcoming speaking engagement at DePaul University in Chicago, for which he will be paid $12,500.

“Holy mackerel, I never heard of a chairman of either party ever taking money for speeches,” said Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., RNC chairman under President Reagan and CEO of the American Gaming Association.

“The job of a national chairman is to give speeches. That’s what the national party pays him for. We didn’t have a rule book back then, but being national chairman was and is a full-time job,” Mr. Fahrenkopf said.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson, who served in that position from 1997 to 2000 and was President George W. Bush’s Veterans Affairs secretary from 2005 to 2007, said the job “demands so much of your time that you can work 24/7 and not get everything done, so taking time out to speak for the benefit of one’s own bank account is not appropriate.”

Mr. Steele’s office dismissed the criticism, saying the chairman was a highly sought-after speaker before being elected to lead the RNC, he’s following all RNC rules, and is committed full time to growing the Republican Party.

“This is silly. Many Democrat and Republican national chairmen have regularly received outside income,” said RNC spokeswoman Gail Gitcho.

“Michael Steele has been giving inspirational speeches based on his personal story long before he was elected RNC chairman and will long after,” Ms. Gitcho said.

Several of Mr. Steele’s predecessors, including Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who now heads the Republican Governors Association, and former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, have been criticized for maintaining financial ties with law firms that had lobbying divisions while they were at the helm of the party.

The RNC employee rule book says that non-party business dealings must be cleared by the party’s legal office.

“Requests to pursue any outside business activities or continue pre-RNC employment business connections must be submitted to the Chief Counsel for review. After consultation with the Chief Counsel, the Chairman or Chief of Staff as appropriate will act upon such requests based upon the RNC conflicts-of-interest policy,” the handbook says.

RNC General Counsel Reince Priebus told The Washington Times that he knew Mr. Steele has been making paid speeches around the country. “Michael Steele is not in violation of the rules of the Republican National Committee,” said Mr. Priebus, who is also Wisconsin GOP chairman.

Asked if Mr. Steele had sought his office’s advice or permission in connection with making paid speeches for his personal benefit, Mr. Priebus initially declined to respond and then said, “I can’t comment.”

Since defeating four other candidates in a bruising six-ballot battle in January, Mr. Steele has repeatedly fended off questions about his leadership and his stewardship over party money from various factions in the party.

In May, Mr. Steele agreed to revive checks and balances in connection with the implemention of RNC contracts, fees for legal work and other expenditures. They had not been renewed after the 2008 presidential nominating contest.

Mr. Steele also has taken some heat from conservatives in the party for backing a liberal-leaning candidate in a special House race in New York that saw the rise of “tea party” influence and the loss of a longtime GOP seat, but Republican candidates did capture the night’s two biggest prizes: governorships in New Jersey and Virginia.

For critics of Mr. Steeles paid-speaking arrangement, the issue is not about written rules or their interpretation; it’s about the appearance of impropriety.

“It just doesn’t look right using RNC resources and trading on the title of chairman to make outside money,” said Rich Bond, another former Republican national chairman.

“When I became chairman, I was surprised some organizations paid honoraria,” Mr. Bond said. “There were no written rules about taking money back then. Still, I decided accepting the money would get me in trouble.”

Mr. Bond’s solution was to give the speaking fees to charity. “I arranged with the Mother Hale Foundation [for babies born to women addicted to crack cocaine] to contribute all of the honoraria I received; I think, a total of $10,000.”

A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee said its officials are unaware of any Democratic national chairman ever having made speeches or outside appearances for personal gain.

“So far as we know, that hasn’t been the case with any Democratic national chairman,” said DNC national press secretary Hari Sevugan.

It’s unclear how many outside speeches Mr. Steele has given, though it potentially adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But on the speaking circuit, he’s not a top-dollar draw.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gets $125,000 per speech, plus first-class expenses for himself and eight retainers who travel with him, APB’s Mr. Sandler said.

APB lists Mr. Steele’s “fee range” as $10,001 to $20,000.

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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