Report: Johnson directed money to program that employed his wifeSen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., helped direct money to a Pentagon program that employed his wife and paid her more than $400,000 over nearly six years, according to a Washington Post investigative report.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., helped direct money to a Pentagon program that employed his wife and paid her more than $400,000 over nearly six years, according to a Washington Post investigative report.
The Post, as part of a special series titled “Capitol Assets,” looked at how members of Congress direct federal dollars to programs that employ their relatives.
Johnson, as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, teamed with seven other senators to add $4 million to a Pentagon program called Starbase that teaches science, math and engineering skills to children in dozens of locations around the country. The committee has jurisdiction over the Pentagon’s budget.
At the time, Johnson’s wife, Barbara, was paid an annual salary of $80,000 as a contract employee to evaluate the program. From 2005 to September 2011, she worked for the Spectrum Group, a lobbying and consulting firm in Alexandria, Va., that has a $1 million Pentagon contract to monitor Starbase.
A social worker and educator, Barbara Johnson was also assigned to manage its website. When she left Spectrum, her title was vice president of the Youth Division.
Johnson’s communications director, Perry Plumart, termed the allegations off-base.
“I think it’s a non-issue,” Plumart said. “What he requested money for was for the very successful Pentagon program to reach out to at-risk youth to bring them into science education projects.”
He said Johnson was part of a bipartisan group of senators that agreed to increase the Pentagon funding request.
That had nothing to do with Spectrum’s decision to hire Barbara Johnson, Plumart said.
He said she had recently retired after 30 years as an educator in South Dakota and Virginia when she joined Spectrum.
Spectrum President Gregory L. Sharp told The Washington Post he hired the senator’s wife because of her history of working with children.
“She was looking for a job,” Sharp said. “We didn’t hire her because of her husband. We didn’t hire her for that reason. She was an experienced educator.”
Barbara Johnson said in an interview with The Washington Post she took the job around the time her husband started having health problems. He later had a brain hemorrhage in December 2006.
Shortly after hiring the senator’s wife, Spectrum filed a lobbying registration form with the House and Senate naming Barbara Johnson as a lobbyist for the company. The form listed Starbase as her only client.
Sharp said the form was submitted in error.
“That was a mistake. She never lobbied the Hill,” he told The Post. “She never lobbied her husband.”
“I was never a lobbyist,” Barbara Johnson told The Post.
Plumart said Tim Johnson played no role in his wife’s employment and had no contact with Pentagon Starbase officials. Plumart said the senator didn’t think it was necessary to disclose his wife’s employment in certifications filed with the Appropriations Committee because the money he added to the program was technically not an earmark.
The senator’s spokesman said the money was not an earmark because it was added to an existing program, not intended for any specific aspect of Starbase, and the request for additional funds was not directed to Johnson’s home state of South Dakota.
“Sen. Johnson’s support of increased funding for Starbase was not an earmark under the definition of a congressionally directed spending item as defined by the Senate rules,” Plumart said in a statement to The Post.
Directors of government watchdog groups disputed that assessment.
“That’s an earmark,” Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, told The Washington Post. “His wife supervises the thing. It’s not like he can say this doesn’t benefit what his wife does. At some point, she has a right to earn a living, but at some point he’s got to say, ‘The optics of this are not very good.’”
An earmark expert interviewed by The Post agreed.
“It’s absolutely an earmark,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, another organization in Washington that tracks congressional spending. “It went to a program that benefits his wife. We would consider that an earmark because it’s an increase in the budget specifically requested by members of Congress.”
Plumart said Johnson still feels he did not earmark the money, and feels the so-called experts are in error.
“They have a very expanded view of what an earmark is,” he said. “It’s not an earmark as described by the Senate Rules Committee or the Office of Management and Budget. It’s very clearly not an earmark.”
Plumart said this report will not change Johnson’s stance on earmarks, which the senator has defended several times in the past few years as they came under fire.
“Senator Johnson is an advocate for earmarks because he is able to direct spending to South Dakota that is for the benefit of South Dakotans in a variety of cases, whether it’s for the National Guard, to move the railroad tracks in downtown Sioux Falls or a wide variety of other occasions,” Plumart said.
In March 2009, Johnson defended earmarks in a column he wrote.
“An earmark moratorium won’t save the federal government any money. Without congressional guidance on where that money should be spent, the task is left to a faceless bureaucrat in Washington to direct money as they see fit. The money is still spent, but it will likely be directed toward New York rather than Rapid City,” Johnson wrote. “The word ‘earmark’ has become a symbol for overspending and government waste when, in truth, congressionally directed funding provides much needed resources to local communities when they are handled responsibly.”
Plumart said the Washington Post story did cause some irritation.
“There’s a frustration that his support for a clearly successful program that helps at-risk kids has turned into a minor controversy,” Plumart said.
Barbara Johnson said she sought an oral opinion from the Senate Ethics Committee to ensure that her employment “wasn’t crossing any lines.” She said she couldn’t recall when she sought the opinion or who she met with at the Ethics Committee, but she was told her employment was permitted under Senate rules. “They said it didn’t pose any conflict,” she said.
South Dakota Republican Party Executive Director Tony Post said he read the report Wednesday morning.
“The Washington Post investigation is troubling to say the least,” Post said. “Tim Johnson and his Senate Democrats need to introduce a budget rather than to push money around into earmarks and troubling problems with links like this.”
Sen. Johnson, 65, is in his 26th year in Congress. He served 10 years in the U.S. House of Representatives before he was elected to the Senate in 2006. Johnson is in his third term in the Senate and has yet to announce if he will seek a fourth term.
The Washington Post report said 16 members of Congress have worked to send tax dollars to companies, colleges and community groups where their spouses, children and parents work as salaried employees, lobbyists or board members, according to an examination of federal disclosure forms and local public records.
The findings stem from an examination by The Post of all 535 members of the House and Senate, comparing their financial disclosure forms with thousands of public records. The examination uncovered a broad range of connections between the public and private lives of the nation’s lawmakers.
Lawmakers said in interviews the actions they took were not intended to directly benefit their relatives or themselves. Instead, they said, the largesse was meant to assist corporations, educational programs and community organizations that employ, educate and help residents in their congressional districts.
See more of the special series at www.washingtonpost.com/capitolassets.