Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has used a Senate employee as his personal bookkeeper but does not appear to have paid her for those services out of his own funds, even as the aide collected more than a quarter-million dollars in federal pay, according to Senate records and the aide’s financial disclosure forms.
Barbara Flanders, who has worked for Stevens since at least 2004, has been paid as an employee of the Senate, first as a staff assistant on the Appropriations Committee and in Stevens’ personal office and, since October 2005, as a “financial clerk” on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
According to an Associated Press report, Flanders — who did not respond to repeated requests for comment — is cooperating with federal law enforcement officials conducting a wide-ranging corruption probe of Stevens and other Alaska lawmakers and business leaders, including Stevens’ son, Ben, and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).
The AP report said Flanders has testified before a grand jury regarding her work as Stevens’ personal bookkeeper, as part of the federal probe into his relationship with executives from the oil services firm VECO Corp.
The FBI and Internal Revenue Service are investigating the role VECO executives played in a remodeling project at Stevens’ Girdwood, Alaska, home, and Flanders provided testimony on that issue, the AP reported.
According to her 2007 financial disclosure form, Flanders did not report any income from Stevens or anyone connected to the lawmaker for her bookkeeping services.
Spokesmen for Stevens and the Commerce panel declined to comment for this story.
It is unclear what function Flanders performs for the Commerce Committee. She is listed in Senate records as the committee’s “financial clerk,” a designation that does not appear to be used by other committees in the Senate.
According to Senate pay records compiled by LegiStorm.com, since October 2004, Stevens has paid Flanders $259,049 from payroll accounts in his personal office and the Appropriations and Commerce committees. Significantly, these records show she has seen a steep uptick in pay over the past several years, with her salary jumping from $34,794.39 for the six-month pay period from October 2004 to April 2005, to $76,493.32 for her latest pay period from October 2006 to April of this year, when she was paid as a financial clerk on Commerce.
Flanders had two particularly steep increases. First, she received an $11,688.28 raise between the October 2005 to April 2006 pay period and the April 2006 to October 2006 period. The second large boost came in her next pay period, when she jumped from a six-month salary of $57,749.94 to $76,493.32, a $18,743.38 raise.
Senate rules prohibit any employee from using federal facilities or equipment to conduct personal business for a Member, and federal law bars lawmakers from using the Senate’s payroll to pay for work done that is purely personal in nature. Lawmakers also are required to disclose any payments they make from personal accounts to aides for official work, although no similar disclosure rule appears to be in place for lawmakers who employ staff to do personal — rather than official — work.
Less clear is whether staff can do time- intensive jobs like bookkeeping or accounting on a pro bono basis for a Member.
Federal law and Senate rules provide enough flexibility to Senate staff to allow them to volunteer on Members’ campaigns, according to Ken Gross, an ethics attorney with the firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Gross said “the kinds of volunteer work that staffers would do is typically campaign related,” and he called the situation between Stevens and Flanders “unusual.”
Gross also said Flanders’ pay levels and the series of raises Stevens has given her could also create the impression of some sort of impropriety. “In a situation where the public employee is being disproportionately compensated for their duties, the case could be made” that federal funds are being used to pay for the outside employment, Gross said.
“If her compensation is very disparate … it might raise eyebrows to the point where further review might be warranted,” Gross added, though he cautioned it is difficult to tell whether this is the case without a detailed comparison of her pay compared with that of her peers.
Although longtime Senate aides said it is not unusual for staff to do personal work for Members, they said generally it is largely de minimus in nature — for instance, having a scheduler set up a dinner reservation for a lawmaker and his family. Aides said that in several cases where lawmakers have hired staff to do work similar to Flanders’ bookkeeping job, the aides have been compensated for their work from personal accounts and steps were taken to ensure Senate rules governing the use of federal property were followed.
It also is unclear whether the Senate’s gift ban would prohibit staff from working for Members for free. The rules define gifts to include services, which would cover bookkeeping. Additionally, while an exemption has been made for staff to give gifts to Members under certain circumstances — such as a wedding or birthday — they can be done only when the gift is given voluntarily and under those clearly defined instances. However, given the lack of specific guidance in the Senate ethics manual, staff familiar with the rules said it is uncertain whether the gift ban would apply in this instance.