When Michael S. Steele took over as chairman of the Republican National Committee earlier this year, he brought along longtime personal assistant Belinda Cook and gave her a salary nearly three times what her predecessor made.
Mrs. Cook’s son, Lee, also landed an RNC job.
Mr. Steele hired another family friend, Angela Sailor, to be the party’s outreach director at a salary of $180,000, more than double her predecessor’s compensation, though new responsibilities have been added to the job, according to a high-ranking RNC official and Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings.
Mr. Steele’s early record and personnel decisions figure to be hot topics at a special meeting of Republican state party chairmen Tuesday and Wednesday at National Harbor in Washington’s Maryland suburbs. His hiring of friends and the salaries he is paying them already helped to instigate a struggle over who controls the party’s purse strings, one that forced the new party chairman to relinquish some control to elected RNC members.
“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,” said Hawaii Republican Party Chairman Willis Lee. “And if certain staff at the national committee are making that much, then the public understandably might think they are examples of cronyism.”
RNC Communications Director Trevor Francis declined to address specifically questions about the salaries of Mrs. Cook and Ms. Sailor and the reasons for the increases.
“Salaries aren’t secret, just something that we’re not going to talk about outside of our [Federal Election Commission] filings,” Mr. Francis said.
Mr. Steele could face other headaches at the special meeting as well, including a vote on a resolution he has publicly opposed: to ask the Democratic Party to rename itself “the Democrat Socialist Party.” Two other less contentious resolutions - praising Republican lawmakers for opposing pet federal projects, government bailouts and heavy federal spending - also will be voted on.
But many complaints will focus on staff compensation. Some party officials have said that the salaries appear generous compared with those paid for similar positions under previous RNC head Robert M. “Mike” Duncan.
“When we are talking about paying someone three times what his predecessor made, it would be wise to make sure all 168 members of the national committee know who these people being hired are and what their qualifications are for being paid that much,” Texas RNC member Cathie Adams said.
According to take-home-pay figures that the RNC filed with the FEC for March of this year, Mrs. Cook, Mr. Steele’s personal assistant, earned $7,134.66 for the month, after withholding for federal and state taxes, which would amount to $85,615.92 over 12 months.
The person who held the same post under Mr. Duncan took home $2,436.74 monthly, or $29,240.88 over 12 months, FEC reports showed. The RNC official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to disclose the figures, said Mrs. Cooks salary before deductions is $125,000.
As for Lee Cook, he earned $3,251.77 in March, about $39,021.24 a year after taxes, according to the FEC.
The salary being paid to Ms. Sailor, a former White House aide, is $180,000 a year, according to the RNC official. That is $40,000 more than the $140,000 paid to Jan Larimer, the elected RNC co-chairman, the second-highest elective post in the party directly behind Mr. Steele, the official said.
Ms. Sailor’s salary is also $97,000 more than the $83,000 Mr. Duncan paid to his outreach director, Shannon Reeves.
The RNC reported to the FEC in 2008 that Mr. Reeves’ salary in May was $4,755.07, which would total $57,060.84 over 12 months. The FEC report lists Ms. Sailor’s take-home pay as $8,557.59 for March, which would total $102,691.08 in yearly salary after taxes. The figures are lower than their actual salary because the party reports to the FEC the take-home pay after taxes.
Ms. Sailor’s job has been upgraded from what the position was under Mr. Duncan, the RNC says.
“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 announced in a recent statement. “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.”
Mr. Steele set an ambitious goal for the new coalitions department, saying it “will evaluate every outside constituent organization in the country at the local, state and national levels.”
Under the “good governance” pact that he reluctantly agreed to last week, Mr. Steele will retain sole say over who is hired and at what salary at the RNC. State party leaders typically have both their staffs and salary scales approved by executive committees and by the larger state GOP central committees.
Mr. Steele has staunch defenders on the RNC - which is made up of three members from each of the 50 states and five territories - but a growing number of critics as well, some of whom say privately they expect a showdown with Mr. Steele at the special meeting.
Hawaii’s Mr. Lee, who says he is not an enemy of the chairman’s, is explicit about the need for sharing control of the party’s purse strings.
“These types of salaries my friend Michael Steele is paying show why it is important for the protection of all of us to have a signed set of rules of good governance, and I am pleased that all the parties have agreed to have checks and balances in place to avoid any perception of impropriety,” Mr. Lee said.
The “parties” he refers to are Mr. Steele and his top advisers on the one hand, and, on the other, Randy Pullen, the elected RNC treasurer; Blake Hall, the RNC general counsel; and three former RNC officers who co-sponsored the “good governance” resolution, which Mr. Steele said is a move to strip him of his rightful powers.
The three resolutions on the agenda will be debated and voted on in open session.
Before that, however, private negotiations are expected between conservatives and Steele supporters over the wording of the “socialist” resolution.
Not up for discussion or a vote is a resolution to limit Mr. Steele’s control over the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars from donors across the nation. Mr. Steele agreed to abide by the essence of that resolution until it is debated and voted on at the regularly scheduled annual summer RNC meeting in July in San Diego.
Several of the party’s “elders” are co-sponsors of the “good governnance” resolution, including Mr. Pullen, Mr. Hall and former RNC Budget Committee Chairman Ron Kaufman.
Mr. Steele is scheduled to address the National Harbor meeting Tuesday afternoon.