Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) may have violated House ethics rules last week when he used his official .gov website to broadcast the details of his visit to the High Park Fire Command Post, which is located outside of the congressional district Polis’ currently represents. Both the House ethics and administration committees have issued clear guidance prohibiting the use of official resources for out-of-district events. The recently completed decennial redistricting process added new territory to Polis’ district, but he will only represent the new areas if he is re-elected in November.
Ethics committee guidelines, which are based on House rules that forbid the use of taxpayer dollars for what are effectively campaign activities, also prohibit members of Congress from using official resources, including staff time, to solicit donations for external organizations.
Chris Fitzgerald, the communications director for Rep. Polis, told Media Trackers in a series of back-and-forth e-mails that no congressional staff or funds were used for Polis’ visit to the command center. Fitzgerald wrote that Polis “had planned to be in the area for non-official events” and was “invited to visit the command center, so he did.”
When asked to clarify whether Polis’ visit qualified as a campaign event, Fitzgerald wrote, “No I am telling you he was already in the area and he was invited to tour the command center so he did. This wasn’t an ‘event’ of any kind, campaign, official or otherwise.” However, according to page 335 of the House Ethics Manual, “An activity may not be treated as both official and unofficial.” Polis’ tweet from the command center, which notes that he was there supporting Gardner’s efforts to solicit federal help, suggests that he was visiting the area in his official capacity.
A statement posted on Polis’ official .gov website two days later also contradicts Fitzgerald’s claim that no taxpayer funds had been used to facilitate or promote Polis’ out-of-district trip to the command post. “This week I travelled [sic] to Larimer County to see the High Park fire firsthand,” Larimer wrote at polis.house.gov, “to help ensure that all federal resources are being brought to bear.”
Polis may have violated House ethics rules again when he included in his official statement a link to the website of Help Colorado Now, a non-profit site that solicits donations for disaster relief. The Members Congressional Handbook, which is prepared by the House administration committee, states that official websites may link to non-governmental websites, but only “so long as the link content relates to the Members official and representational duties to the district from which he or she is elected.”
The same handbook notes that “[a]ccessing a web site (whether by using a link or by other means) is to be treated as a ‘solicited communication’ from a Members office.”
And while the House Ethics Manual, a separate document prepared by the House ethics committee, allows lawmakers to solicit donations on behalf of 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations like Help Colorado Now, it explicitly prohibits the lawmakers and their staff from using official resources — such as a .gov website — to do so.
“As a general matter, the [Ethics] Committee permits…Members and staff to solicit on behalf of organizations qualified under § 170(c) of the Internal Revenue Code including, for example, § 501(c)(3) charitable organizations subject to certain restrictions,” page 348 of the manual states. One of those restrictions, however, deals with the use of official resources, such as an official website managed by taxpayer-funded congressional staff.
“No official resources may be used,” the manual states. “Such official resources include House staff while working on official time, telephones, office equipment and supplies, and official mailing lists.”
The ethics handbooks also prohibits lawmakers and their staff from soliciting inside facilities owned and managed by the U.S. House. Although Media Trackers asked Polis’ communications director, Chris Fitzgerald, if his office sought the advice of the ethics committee prior to publishing the High Park Fire statement on Polis’ official .gov site, Fitzgerald did not respond in time for publication.