Senate candidate paid relative $170K for past campaign work

FILE - In this April 18, 2016, file photo, Indiana Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Marlin Stutzman speaks during a debate with opponent Todd Young in Indianapolis. Stutzman billed his campaign more than $2,000 in airfare for his family's trip to the Ronald Reagan library in California, an apparent violation of federal election laws. The expense is part of hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel expenses, meals and vehicle payments Stutzman has charged to his campaign fund since 2010. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – An Indiana Senate candidate who has railed against out-of-control government spending paid his brother-in-law nearly $170,000 to manage the finances of his congressional campaign. The relative worked as a car salesman and actor but had no experience rounding up political donations.

Marlin Stutzman, a tea party-backed Republican facing fellow U.S. Rep. Todd Young in Tuesday’s primary, gave his relative an average of $5,000 a month from the campaign account for the nearly three years he served as finance director. That was about $800 a month higher than the salary paid to Gabe Rivera’s successor, who raised about $400,000 more for the campaign in six fewer months.

“I trust him more. I know him,” Stutzman said of Rivera, the husband of his wife’s sister, during an interview Thursday with The Associated Press. “I’m trying to protect every dollar that comes in from donors. I had no concerns whatsoever about him being my brother-in-law.”

The congressman and his brother-in-law also are business partners. In 2012, while Rivera was still working for the campaign, he and his wife joined the Stutzmans in opening a bridal shop in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Financial disclosure reports list Stutzman as the shop’s chairman.

Rivera joined the campaign before Stutzman first won the congressional seat in 2010 and departed in 2013, eventually returning to his acting career in a traveling production billed as “a New Testament Stage Epic.”

Stutzman’s defense of the hire came after the AP reported last week that he spent more than $3,000 in donor money on airfare and travel expenses for a California trip his wife described on Facebook as “a family vacation.” The trip represents just a small part of the over $300,000 in flights, vehicle charges, meals and hotel stays Stutzman’s campaign fund has spent since he went to Washington on a pledge to oppose special interests. His campaign has yet to answer questions about a large number of mileage reimbursements he collected or his broader spending habits.

An AP analysis found the money Rivera earned in less than three years has accounted for 57 percent of the congressional campaign’s total staff payroll since the fund was established in 2010. That doesn’t include money the campaign gave to consulting firms.

Many of Stutzman’s campaign workers were also employed in his congressional office, which Rivera was barred from doing under U.S. House and Senate rules that generally forbid hiring family. Although it’s not illegal for relatives to work on a campaign staff, often those are lower-level positions, said Paul Herrnson, a campaign finance expert and political science professor at the University of Connecticut.

“There may be an occasion where a relative is hired, but generally speaking that’s not the case for a position like finance director,” Herrnson said.

Congressional ethics rules also recommend getting an advisory opinion before making such a hire. Stutzman said he couldn’t recall seeking one for Rivera.

During the time Rivera oversaw fundraising, all of the Republicans in Indiana’s congressional delegation out-raised Stutzman, with all but one receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars more. When Rivera’s more-experienced successor took over, the numbers improved.

Rivera didn’t respond to messages from the AP seeking comment. Stutzman said he did “a great job,” adding that he could trust his brother-in-law, unlike other fundraisers who he’d have to “double-check and re-check to make sure they’re not doing something inappropriate.”

Campaign manager Josh Kelley explained the fundraising numbers alone aren’t a good measure of a finance director’s value.

“You assume that everybody is going to close the deal every time they walk into a fundraising meeting and it’s just not really an accurate portrayal of how political fundraising takes place,” Kelley said.

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