- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2010

SAN DIEGO | Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele hired his former personal assistant to manage the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., for $15,000 a month plus a $25,000 signing bonus, The Washington Times has learned.

The contract, signed by Mr. Steele on the RNC’s Committee on Arrangements (COA) letterhead, calls for Belinda Cook to serve “as RNC liaison to the convention.”

The Tampa press has been identifying Mrs. Cook as “convention manager” - a position invariably filled in the past by Republicans of considerable federal-level experience in negotiating many contracts each worth millions of dollars.

Former RNC convention managers say they know of no such previous title as “liaison to the convention” and questioned the need for such a position in the second half of 2010.

They also say the contract with Tampa to be the host city was made six months earlier than with host cities in the past, thus causing an already cash-strapped RNC to spend more money sooner than in the past on the national nominating convention.

“Strikes me that this liaison mission is premature and overcompensated,” said former RNC general counsel David Norcross, who in 2004 also served as chairman of the COA, the RNC panel that oversees the quadrennial presidential nominating convention.

“I know of no prior ‘liaison’ position, nor do I know what such a person would do,” said Mr. Norcross, who is in San Diego for the annual Republican Governors Association meeting.

“There is no need for a full-time person starting more than two years out from the beginning of the convention,” Mr. Norcross told The Times.

Other former RNC convention managers, speaking to The Times on the condition of anonymity, agreed that Mrs. Cook’s position is unnecessary at this stage of the election cycle, overpaid for what work may be required at the end of 2010, and beyond Mrs. Cook’s known qualifications.

Mr. Steele signed the contract in July of this year and dispatched Mrs. Cook and a team of operatives to Tampa, where they rent living quarters, presumably to be on site to negotiate arrangements with the host committee for the 2012 Republican presidential nominating convention.

But staff and party officials report seeing Mrs. Cook not in Florida but in the RNC headquarters building in Washington this week.

This week, she sent what she labeled as “talking points” to six of Mr. Steele’s staunchest supporters on the RNC. The talking points use RNC Finance Department figures to attempt to rebut accusations by the RNC’s former political director that the committee under Mr. Steele has had a dismal fundraising record.

RNC spokesman Doug Heye declined to comment.

Mrs. Cook did not respond to a message left on her cell phone.

The contract guaranteed Mrs. Cook $15,000 a month, from July 1 through the date of the next chairman election, in January. The contract also awarded Mrs. Cook an immediate lump sum upon signing of $25,000, earning her $115,000 for the contract’s six-month length.

The latest Federal Election Commission filings through Sept. 30 also confirm the bonus payment and the monthly payments to that date.

Led by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the outgoing RGA chairman and a former RNC chairman, Republican governors meeting here have been huddling over ways to block the re-election of Mr. Steele, who has made conflicting statements to friends and in public as to whether he will seek a second term.

After Mr. Steele won election as national chairman in January 2009, he brought along Mrs. Cook, his longtime personal assistant, and gave her a salary nearly three times what her predecessors made.

Mrs. Cook’s son, Lee, also landed an RNC job.

Mr. Steele hired another friend of his family, Angela Sailor, to be the party’s outreach director with an annual salary of $180,000, more than double her predecessor’s compensation, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings reported by The Times in May 2009.

“These salaries we hear about are way out of line for what staff should be paid for working for a political party, which most of us think of as a cause,” former Hawaii Republican Party Chairman Willis Lee said in 2009. “And if certain staff at the national committee are making that much, then the public understandably might think they are examples of cronyism.”

According to figures that the RNC filed with the FEC for March 2009, Mrs. Cook earned $7,134.66 that month after withholding for federal and state taxes as Mr. Steele’s personal assistant, which would amount to $85,615.92 for the year. That amount was almost three times the $2,436.74 that the person who held the same post under RNC Chairman Mike Duncan took home after taxes, FEC reports showed.

Mrs. Cook’s son, Lee Cook, earned $3,251.77 in March 2009, about $39,000 per year after taxes, according to the FEC.

The salary paid to Ms. Sailor, a former White House aide, was $180,000 per year before taxes or $40,000 more than the $140,000 paid to Jan Larimer, who as the elected RNC co-chairman holds the RNC’s second-highest elective post behind Mr. Steele.

Ms. Sailor’s salary was also $97,000 more than the $83,000 Mr. Duncan paid to his outreach director, Shannon Reeves. But the RNC said then that Ms. Sailor’s job had been upgraded from what the position was under Mr. Duncan.

“The Coalitions Department is a new RNC division created by Chairman Steele as part of his commitment to creating sustained communications with every constituency,” the RNC said then. “The director of coalitions will work to recruit and support Republicans by targeting messages to identified publications, events and emerging issues in communities where the party has opportunities to grow.”

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

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