As Sen. Rand Paul ramps up his 2016 presidential bid, his chief political adviser has been soliciting money from some conservatives and political insiders to help his own family adopt another child.
Doug Stafford’s email and Internet appeals seek to raise $30,000 quickly and declare that he and his wife have been “called by God” to adopt a second child.
The pitches have warmed the hearts of some recipients while making others who learned of the appeals feel uncomfortable about the ethical implications of Mr. Paul’s chief gatekeeper seeking personal money so close to his boss’ expected 2016 bid.
“When this was brought to my attention, I was surprised and disappointed,” said Becky Norton Dunlop, a longtime conservative activist and vice president at the Heritage Foundation, a respected conservative think tank. “My family adopted a young boy when my parents already had four children so I know a little about the subjects, adoption and financial need.”
Mrs. Dunlop, who serves as the American Conservative Union’s treasurer, said she doesn’t “know the Stafford family but it seems that if you really want to add to your family by adoption, your family should be able to afford to do so without a fundraising campaign.”
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But others said the Stafford family should be applauded for trying to give a loving home to another child and that fund-raising to cover adoption costs is becoming more common.
“While we don’t know the all the details of anyone’s particular situation, the idea of community-based support for adoption is as common as the practice itself,” said Kelly Rosati, Focus on the Family vice president of community outreach.
“So whether it’s colleagues, friends, relatives or fellow parishioners, there are many people who would consider it an honor to play even a small role in the beauty of adoption,” Mrs. Rosati said.
Mr. Stafford so far has raised $22,516 in personal donations from 18 persons, six of whom are connected to RAND PAC, the Kentucky Republican’s political action committee that can raise money to give to other candidates.
Mr. Stafford serves as RAND PAC’s executive director. Its staff and advisers are in effect Mr. Paul’s 2016 GOP pre-campaign organization clearing the way for his 2016 election bid.
Mr. Stafford told The Washington Times he saw nothing wrong in seeking the financial help, noting his last adoption of a child three years ago cost his family about $65,000.
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“My family believes strongly that being pro-life means taking that to heart and in our home,” he said. “We join many families who have chosen to raise funds for adoption and are pleased to have both the prayers and the support of our family and friends in this important event.”
Until May 2013, Mr. Stafford served as Mr. Paul’s chief of staff in the Senate, where he was covered by strict ethics rules governing solicitations, moonlighting and receipt of gifts. Now at the PAC, those rules don’t apply.
Ethics experts said Mr. Stafford’s actions don’t violate any laws but raise questions of about judgment since his request for money opens the door for special interests to use a donation to the adoption effort to curry favor or access to a soon-to-be presidential candidate.
“Whenever you are dealing with a potential presidential candidate the personal lives of staff are often very much a part of the campaign,” said Kent Cooper, the Federal Election Commission’s former chief of disclosure who now runs the nonpartisan Political Moneyline service that studies money in politics.
“Many potential donors see all these actions of the staff as requests on behalf of the campaign, and that is what he should have known. He should know as the candidate’s chief gatekeeper that anything he does might be construed as maintaining favor with the senator,” he added.
Merrill Matthews, a former ethics professor who is now a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation, agreed.
“People in prominent and public positions, or who can provide access to them, have to be especially careful about asking for donations because others can feel they must contribute if they want to maintain that relationship,” he said. “That perception exists even if there is no connection.”
Mr. Matthews added that the fact that Mr. Stafford’s family is disclosing the donors on the adoption Web site at least creates transparency to his effort.
“Providing full disclosure of the donors is helpful because people trying to hide something usually try to avoid transparency,” he said. “But those who do need to be aware that perceptions are often stronger than reality.”
The timing of the appeals also surprised some.
February is a popular month for conservative events, where White House contenders often mingle with potential donors and supporters. Mr. Paul was the featured speaker at last week’s American Spectator dinner and will be a main-stage draw at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing before,” said Council for National Policy Executive Director Bob McEwen, a former congressman, as he boarded a plane to visit his newest grandchild. “I wonder if my grandchild’s parents have thought of doing that. Every new parent feels the need for additional revenue. But this is an new one for me.”
Mrs. Dunlop saw little humor in the situation.
“One doesn’t need a lot of money to be a loving family,” she said. “This is creative but not particularly admirable.”
She said she was also concerned that Mr. Stafford has the de facto ability to hire and fire RAND PAC staffers, some of whom donated to his personal cause.
“Doing so in such a public manner makes it more problematic because it appears to be pressure to give,” Mrs. Dunlop said. “Certainly it pressures those who have chosen not to give in such a public way.”
The Times obtained one of the letters Mr. Stafford sent to a Washington insider that bore the subject line: “Adoption request for prayers and donations.”
“As you may know our family has been blessed by our youngest adopted daughter Gracie who just turned three,” Mr. Stafford wrote. “We have found ourselves in the last few months called by God to do this again.”
Mr. Stafford makes no mention of his ties to Mr. Paul in the appeal and said fund-raising for adoption has become more common.
“Most couples adopting fundraise for it. We didn’t last time and our expenses in expanding our family were nearly $65,000,” he wrote. “Our blessings and our callings are leading us to this. Our bank account, though, is not.”
At least six persons who draw paychecks from or are affiliated with the PAC that Mr. Stafford heads are listed on his adoption website — https://www.adopttogether.org/staffordfamily — as contributors to Mr. Stafford’s adoption appeal.
They are Steve Grubbs, a former Iowa GOP chairman and now RAND PAC senior adviser; Sergio Gor, a former Michele Bachmann press secretary and now RAND PAC communications director; John Yob, a political consultant and who is now RAND PAC national political director and its Michigan chief strategist; Vincent Harris, founder and CEO of Harris Media LLC and now RAND PAC chief digital strategist; Chip Englander, a former campaign manager to several GOP state office candidates and now RAND PAC senior adviser; and Jesse Benton, a former campaign manager for Sen. Paul, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and former Rep. Ron Paul.
In his letter, Mr. Stafford wrote, “we try to give charitably and we tithe even when it is difficult. We now lift our cause and our calling to God and to our family and friends in seeking for them to be a part of this with us.
“If you think this is a cause you could assist with, we ask you to both pray for us and if you can, contribute to our adoption via the link below,” he wrote.
Mr. Stafford points out in the letter that the “entity that accepts the donations is actually a 501c3 so it is tax deductible.”
The AdoptTogether.org says on is website that it has helped 982 families raise $4 million to date.
The adoption fund-raising page for Mr. Stafford and his wife Elizabeth included a picture of them and their four children.
“Hi there and thank you for taking a look at our family’s adoption page,” the message below the family picture stated.
“Ever since we were newlyweds, we knew we wanted to expand our family through adoption,” the message added. “Little did we know that 5 years later, we would be blessed with a beautiful baby girl, Gracie. We now believe that God is calling us to once again open our hearts and home to another blessing.”
The message from Doug and Elizabeth Stafford acknowledged that they can’t afford to adopt on their own.
“We can’t do this without the support of our family and friends,” the couple wrote. “Please lift our family up in your prayers. We would ask that you pray for peace and wisdom as we walk through this adoption journey.”