- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2010

A member of the Republican National Committee’s top panel will call for an investigation of RNC Chairman Michael S. Steele’s spending, warning that “cronyism” dried up big-donor fundraising this year and now is jeopardizing major-donor fundraising for the 2012 GOP presidential nominating convention in Tampa, Fla.

Oregon RNC member Solomon Yue will call on the group’s executive committee to freeze hiring and spending and review all RNC contracts.

“We know the RNC’s big donors left us in this election cycle because Steele pocketed speaking fees and book royalties, and because he hired aides and friends - and paid them two to three times more than market value,” Mr. Yue, an executive committee member and a founder of the Republican National Conservative Caucus, told The Washington Times.

“Steele has wasted donors’ dollars on spending that had nothing to do with electing our House and Senate candidates on Nov. 2,” he said.

Mr. Yue’s call raised the 21-month-old insurgency within the Steele-led RNC to a new level of acrimony.

The controversy escalated amid revelations that Mr. Steele’s longtime personal assistant Belinda Cook; her son, Lee Cook; and her sister, Betina Barcus, had rented a house in Tampa and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars negotiating and planning for the 2012 GOP convention - 25 months before the event.

Mr. Yue cited a Nov. 18 report in The Washington Times that Mr. Steele hired Mrs. Cook as “liaison” to the host city committee for the convention. The Times reported that Mr. Steele signed a contract awarding Mrs. Cook $15,000 a month plus a $25,000 “signing” bonus. The paper also reported that Mr. Steele put Mrs. Cook and a team of operatives in Tampa six months earlier than previous regimes.

RNC spending for Tampa through September exceeded $636,800 - or 18 times the total spent in a comparable period four years ago, based on data available on the Federal Election Commission website, The Washington Post reported on Saturday.

“All told, the extended Cook family received $106,291 in known compensation from the Committee on Arrangements in the three month period from July 1 to Sept. 30,” the Daily Caller reported Monday.

Neither Mr. Steele nor his spokesman, Doug Heye, responded Monday to a request for comment.

Mr. Steele, who’s been fending off critics of his stormy two years at the helm of the RNC, points to the electoral successes of the party - winning the House and gubernatorial victories in states that supported President Obama such as New Jersey and Virginia - to validate his performance.

“None of my predecessors have been able to put together the kind of combination of wins. And it’s because we tried to make the party more grass-roots-oriented - not top down, but bottom up,” Mr. Steele said earlier this month on NPR.

He once told critics, including three respected former RNC chairmen: “If you don’t want me in the job, fire me. But until then, shut up. Get with the program or get out of the way.”

But the number of high-profile party members willing to publicly question Mr. Steele’s performance has increased steadily in the past several weeks, with a handful of party members declaring bids for the top slot or indicating they’re considering a run.

Ann Wagner, former RNC co-chairman and former ambassador to Luxembourg, announced her candidacy for chairman on Monday.

The RNC “must start immediately to erase past debt and to restore the confidence of our donor base,” she said.

In a Nov. 16 memo to the executive committee, former RNC Political Director Gentry Collins - who is planning his own run for RNC chairman in January - revealed a climate of overspending and mismanagement under Mr. Steele. He said the resulting loss of confidence among major donors dried up fundraising and cost the GOP as many as 21 House seats, three governorships and two Senate seats.

Mr. Yue is confident he can initiate a special executive committee meeting because it takes only seven of the 28-member executive committee to petition for the meeting under RNC Rules 6C and 6D. Mr. Yue said the meeting would take place in the form of a conference call.

“I will say during that call I would like to see an ad hoc investigating committee established with RNC’s eight elected regional vice chairmen and eight elected executive committee members,” Mr. Yue said. “Elected members are definitely not Steele appointees, though some may be his supporters.

“The goal is to freeze hiring and spending and to review all contracts, and the review will produce a report to the entire RNC with a new resolution as a course correction during our winter meeting in Washington,” Mr. Yue said. “This is how we can restore trust, integrity and accountability.”

Mr. Yue said he expects Mr. Steele’s supporters to object that the executive committee has no sway over the Committee on Arrangements, which manages the quadrennial Republican National Convention. But the arrangements panel was created under RNC rule 10A5, which gives the Executive Committee jurisdiction over the arrangements committee.

Although Mr. Steele appoints the chairman and the chief executive officer to manage the convention, both are subject to the RNC “good governance” resolution that requires all contracts valued at $100,000 or more to be reviewed and approved by the executive committee - a requirement apparently not met in the formation of the arrangements committee this time around.

“There are many unanswered questions,” Mr. Yue said. “We started paying Mrs. Cook’s sister this July for hotel consulting in Tampa - 25 months before the 2012 convention,” Mr. Yue said. “How long will her contract last, and how much total are we going to pay her?”

From July through September, the RNC paid Mrs. Cook’s sister a total of $25,000, based on FEC reporting. If it is a two-year contract, then she would be owed $200,000. “Should that be under jurisdiction of our good governance resolution that requires executive committee review and approval?” Mr. Yue asked.

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

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