Nov. 17--Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's use of a government office to conduct some of his private business dealings has led to calls for the little-known perk to be reined in.
Hastert, 70, an Illinois Republican and Washington lobbyist, left Congress in 2007 and has kept an office in far west suburban Yorkville for almost five years at a cost of nearly $1.8 million. Federal law gives ex-speakers an office to wind down matters related to their House tenure.
A Tribune investigation, published last week, found Hastert used the office and a government-paid secretary to handle some scheduling and travel related to his private business ventures.
In the wake of that report, the National Taxpayers Union, a nonpartisan watchdog group, urged Congress to cut back on the benefit or eliminate it.
"Like former presidents, former speakers and most ex-lawmakers, for that matter, have plenty of post-government career options to keep them afloat," said Pete Sepp, the group's executive vice president.
"Clearly one way to resolve any questions surrounding appropriate use of the former speakers' perk is to end it entirely or more strictly limit the purpose," he said.
Sepp suggested that the National Archives might be a better choice to gather former speakers' papers and help with research for "official congressional history purposes."
Washington lawyer Kenneth Gross, an authority on government ethics, questioned why a former speaker is given office space for five years and a staff of up to three people.
"I am not sure why in the world a former speaker of the House needs a government-provided office for five years after leaving office," said Gross, formerly the associate general counsel for the Federal Election Commission.
At Citizens Against Government Waste, a group that targets mismanagement and inefficiency in the federal government, President Tom Schatz said the office perk should be reviewed. Most correspondence is now handled electronically, he said, so "it is possible that it may take less than five years for former speakers to get their papers in order."
At its peak, the taxpayer-paid office set up for Hastert in December 2007 had three staffers, each making six-figure salaries.
The Tribune found that a secretary in the Office of the Former Speaker used email to coordinate some of his private business meetings and travel. She also conducted research on one venture, a proposed Formula One racetrack in Southern California.
J. David John, 48, a Burr Ridge businessman who was involved in ventures with Hastert, said he met with Hastert at least three times in the Office of the Former Speaker to discuss various projects.
Gross said it was impermissible to use government resources for private business unless it is incidental, such as making a doctor's appointment with a government telephone or email account. Only a certain amount of incidental use is allowed, he said.
House employees are warned that while minor, incidental personal use of government resources is permitted in no case should they be used to conduct private business or look for a job.
The Tribune's findings had prompted Bob Edgar, a Democrat and former congressman who now is president of Common Cause, a government watchdog group, to call for the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate.
Kelly Brewington, spokeswoman for the ethics office, declined to comment, citing policies against discussing whether an investigation is under way.
The cost to taxpayers for Hastert's office was nearly $1.8 million through June 30. The money paid for salaries, office rent, travel, moving expenses, equipment, a media consultant, a sport utility vehicle that was leased for two years and other items.
The bill will grow before the office closes Nov. 30. A Tribune analysis projected the final tab could hit $1,875,000.
Hastert was the speaker for eight years, longer than any other Republican. In January 2007, when the Democrats recaptured the House, he lost the post and retired from Congress in November 2007.
Hastert now collects two state pensions and one federal pension totaling about $106,000 a year.
Three months before Hastert's retirement, the Congressional Research Service published a report about giving former speakers an office. The research service found that a two-year office allowance for a departing former speaker dated to 1970, was changed in 1974 to an open-ended time frame and then limited in 1993 to five years.
Now, money is "available to former speakers for office space and furnishings, office operations, franked mail, and staff assistance," the research service said.
"Allowances are to be used solely for the administration and conclusion of any matters relating to service as a representative and speaker of the House."
(c)2012 the Chicago Tribune
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