- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2011

New Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus wasted little time after his election Friday to start cleaning house, firing on Sunday several convention-liaison team members hired under his predecessor’s reign.

The hirings by previous chairman Michael S. Steele and one of his key appointees, related to plans to hold the 2012 convention in Tampa, Fla., had prompted considerable criticism as unnecessary and smacking of cronyism.

Poor fundraising and charges of financial mismanagement had played a considerable role in the discontent among RNC members that led to their rejecting Mr. Steele’s bid Friday for a second two-year term at the committee’s helm.

In a statement Sunday, Mr. Priebus vowed to hold “a world-class 2012 Republican National Convention that will be worthy of the next president of the United States,” but said that “some changes need to be made” to guarantee such a success.

“Those changes start today. I have discontinued the employment of the convention liaison and the employees of the Committee on Arrangements, effective immediately,” Mr. Priebus said.

Mr. Steele had hired Belinda Cook, his former personal assistant, for the “convention liaison” position at $15,000 a month plus a $25,000 signing bonus, The Washington Times first reported in November. The contract was signed by Mr. Steele on Committee on Arrangements (COA) letterhead.

The Tampa press had been identifying Mrs. Cook as “convention manager” - a position invariably filled in the past by Republicans of considerable federal-level experience in negotiating several multimillion-dollar contracts.

Former RNC convention managers told The Times then that they know of no such previous title as “liaison to the convention,” called Mrs. Cook’s position 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.

Mrs. Cook later rented a waterfront house in the Tampa Bay area and hired several people to help her negotiate contracts with the Tampa Republican National Convention Host Committee - both without the RNC’s knowledge or approval.

All those jobs have now been terminated by Mr. Priebus’ order.

“I look forward to bringing on top-notch staff and planning a convention that all Republicans, especially our 2012 presidential nominee, can be proud of,” Mr. Priebus said Sunday.

Republican elections-law attorney Cleta Mitchell applauded the firings.

“What the new RNC chairman just did on the first full day in office shows decisive leadership and courage,” she told The Times on Sunday night. “The Committee on Arrangements staff needs to be appointed in the right way — and now it will be.”

Mr. Priebus took over the RNC leadership post over the weekend after defeating four other candidates, including Mr. Steele, on the seventh ballot, after a spirited campaign in which Mr. Steele’s rivals argued the RNC had lost financial clout and credibility during his tenure.

A record $22 million in red ink was acknowledged in the waning hours of Mr. Steele’s stormy two-year term. Some Republican insiders fear finances may be even worse than that, which might force the new RNC leadership to cut expenses even more drastically and put out emergency appeals for donations.

Party leaders hope that now the committee will function efficiently, retire its gaping debt, and get big donors flocking back to the organization they have cold-shouldered for two years.

Another issue that needs to be settled soon is whether the RNC members that Mr. Steele appointed in the last days of his term - contrary to precedent — can be replaced by people whom Mr. Priebus chooses.

The 37-year-old Kenosha, Wis., native’s candidacy was widely seen as having the support of influential Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former RNC chairman and raised issues of internal clout within the GOP.

House Speaker John A. Boehner endorsed one of Mr. Priebus’ rivals in the chairman’s elections — former Deputy Transportation Secretary Maria Cino — and held a reception on her behalf for RNC members to induce them to vote for her Friday.

Republican lawmakers historically have steered clear of public endorsements in RNC elections because they did not want to appear to be meddling publicly in the internal affairs of a committee made up of three elected officials from each state, the District of Columbia, and the five U.S. territories.

By contrast, Mr. Barbour exercised influence indirectly, through Henry Barbour, the governor’s nephew, and several other veteran RNC members loyal to Mr. Barbour.

The internal sensitivities of RNC members, their favored chairman candidates and some of those candidates’ wealthy behind-the-scenes backers were further ruffled when word spread midway thought the seven-ballot dogfight that Mr. Boehner had cut a deal with Mr. Steele, who then announced he was pulling out of the race and urged his supporters to cast their votes for Mr. Boehner’s candidate, Miss Cino.

But the Boehner-Steele maneuvering failed. Mr. Steele’s supporters split almost evenly between Mr. Priebus and Miss Cino on the next ballot, assuring that by the end of the day, the headline in members’ minds would be “Haley Barbour defeats John Boehner.”

Some major donors are expected to feel reassured by the boost within the RNC that the Priebus win gave to the RNC’s leading social-conservative insurgent, Jim Bopp, a constitutional lawyer from Indiana.

Mr. Bopp had initially criticized Mr. Priebus for having been RNC general counsel and chief adviser to Mr. Steele for the two years in which Mr. Steele personally profited from speeches and book sales as chairman. Mr. Bopp reversed course and endorsed Mr. Priebus after the two men met privately and Mr. Priebus explained why he remained as general counsel despite the Steele transgressions.

Major donors will not feel reassured, however, by the defeat of incumbent Treasurer Randy Pullen, who had battled Mr. Steele, his top lieutenants and his supporters on the committee for access to accurate spending and debt figures that he was obligated to report to the Federal Election Commission.

His successor as treasurer, D.C. member Tony Parker, is not as well-known to some donors as was Mr. Pullen.

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

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