Members Shelled Out $87,000 for Training

Posted March 18, 2011 at 5:59pm

Sometimes, even a Member of Congress needs help speechifying.

Rep. Rob Wittman shelled out more than $3,200 from his official office budget in December 2009 to Altamont, Tenn.-based Podium Master, which conducts public speaking seminars and offers private coaching.

But the Virginia Republican isn’t the only Member — or office — in search of assistance.

House spending reports compiled by the Sunlight Foundation into a searchable database show the chamber paid more than $87,000 in 2010 for various “training expenses,” to vendors ranging from Lexis-Nexis to the American Red Cross. With the addition this week of the fourth quarter of 2010, spending records for the data now spans an entire calendar year, making it possible to generate trends for annual spending by Congress.

According to those records, the Clerk of the House spent the largest amount of any office on training expenses in 2010, paying out nearly $48,000 to the Agriculture Department’s Graduate School, a continuing education program that offers courses to both government employees and the general public.

“The Office of the Clerk uses USDA Graduate School for professional staff development training for a wide range of positions (entry level to senior management),” House Administration Committee spokeswoman Salley Wood wrote in an e-mail Friday.

“Training classes include leadership management skills, proof reading, technical training, customer service excellence, publications and printing design, HR management, budgeting, financial management and contracts management,” she added.

The Clerk’s office also paid $6,200 to Xerox Corp. for training, spending reports show.

Although official spending records generally provide little information beyond who received funds and dates of service, House offices disclosed that the training covered everything from learning a new language to peer evaluations.

A spokeswoman for Wittman said the lawmaker sought out Podium Master “for communications training in his representation duties.”

Podium Master co-founder Jeanette Henderson said Friday that the company typically works one-on-one with Members, often on a specific speech.

“When it comes to the Congress, we do mostly individual sessions,” Henderson said.

Rep. Paul Broun’s office reported paying more than $3,700 to Dallas-based Spaeth Communications in April 2010.

The Georgia Republican’s office could not be reach for comment Friday, but Spaeth Executive Vice President Rebecca Shaw said the firm offers courses on “personal communications,” “mastering the media” and other topics.

“We have a very diverse client base,” Shaw said, but she added that “candidates and political officeholders” are a small portion of their cliental.

Rep. Keith Ellison recorded the largest training expenditure among individual Member offices, reporting a single $15,000 payment to Grassroots Solutions in January 2010.

A spokesman for the Minnesota Democrat said the funds paid for costs associated with the “annual all-staff meeting,” including “venue, planning, materials, facilitation and follow-up.”

“The meetings support coordination between our Washington and Minneapolis offices and help us to better serve our constituents,” Ellison spokesman Micah Clemens said.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) reported a $329 payment to Netroots Nation in July 2010. Spokesman Donald Lathbury said the funds paid for his registration to the group’s annual convention.

“It’s an opportunity to learn what Internet tools are available for communication professionals,” Lathbury said. He touted the office’s efforts to employ technology, such as using smartphones to stage a mobile video town hall meeting between Garamendi and his constituents.

“We’re proud of the work we’re doing online, and this is an extension of that,” Lathbury said.

Both Rep. Ben Ray Luján and the House Foreign Affairs Committee have spent funds on language training.

The New Mexico Democrat’s office paid nearly $3,300 to language software company Rosetta Stone for services in December 2009.

A Foreign Affairs Committee aide said the panel’s $2,300 payment to the State Department in September likewise went to provide Spanish language training to a committee staffer.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ office paid $1,200 to Moore Information for “training expenses,” which an aide to the Washington state Republican said provided for a “confidential peer evaluation survey.”

“As part of that survey, members of the Congresswoman’s staff were able to give confidential feedback on other staff members, the Congresswoman herself, and the office in general,” McMorris Rodgers spokeswoman Riva Litman said. The office also received a report on the survey’s findings.

Both the House Ethics Committee and the Office of Congressional Ethics made payments to the information firm Lexis-Nexis in the last half of 2010, spending $1,800 and $750, respectively.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) reported a $400 payment to the American Red Cross in June.