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All in the Family: Senators’ Kin Reap Financial Benefits, Study Says

Nepotism is alive and well in the U.S. Senate, according to a new report detailing what it says are questionable financial arrangements that benefit the lawmakers’ relatives.

The “Family Affair” report by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), found that relatives of 67 of the 100 senators were employed by an affiliated organization, such as a campaign or political campaign committee, worked as lobbyists or otherwise benefited from a financial arrangement related to the lawmaker’s influential position. While legal, such setups create the appearance of impropriety, it said.

The report, which covered the period from the 2008 election cycle through the early part of the 2014 election cycle, found that such setups involving spouses, children and siblings were bipartisan, with 37 Republicans, 28 Democrats and two Independents engaging in at least one of the practices.

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Among its key findings:

  • 20 senators (five Democrats, one Independent and 14 Republicans) paid family members through their congressional offices, campaign committees and political action committees (PACs). Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, led the pack in this category, with payments of $258,556 to a relative, it said. (Brian Phillips, a spokesman for Sen. Lee, said his boss was unfairly included on the list by CREW, which he accused of lying for political purposes. He said the employee in question, Ben Burr, is Lee's nephew by marraige and is not considered a relative under federal law, pointing to a section in the Senate ethics manual that states “the term ‘nephew’ as used in the statute would not include the son or daughter of the brother or sister of the official’s spouse.” He also defended Burr’s credentials for his jobs as digital media director and systems manager, saying, ”He is a hard worker and is paid at a rate which is commensurate with his training and capabilities and responsibilities -– in an amount similar to others performing similar duties in the Senate.”)
  • 30 senators (10 Democrats and 20 Republicans) had family members who worked as federal lobbyists or were employed in government affairs. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, had the most family members working in one of these categories, with five, according to the report. (A spokeswoman for Grassley responded: “Senator Grassley is proud of his family, including the small business that his daughter started from nothing. Her company provides a number of services to state and local professional business associations such as leadership development, conference and trade show management, member recruitment, public relations, membership management, website development, publications and database management and government relations. There are no Grassley family members who are registered to lobby nor are they required to in their jobs.”)
  • 26 senators (12 Democrats and 14 Republicans) paid a family business, employer or associated nonprofit. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was tops in this category, with $530,935 in payments to companies that employed his wife and niece’s husband, it said. (Brian Darling, a spokesman for Sen. Paul, said, “The numbers provided by CREW are misleading. ... Furthermore, the company purchases time in the media, therefore the numbers cited mostly are used to purchase expensive media buys and not used for compensation." He also pointed out an error in an earlier version of this article, which stated that Paul's wife and niece's husband ran the companies in question.)
  • Seven senators (five Democrats and two Republicans) used their campaign money to contribute to or pay a family member’s political campaign. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., was the top donor, with $15,000 in contributions to the campaigns of her brother, Mitch, for lieutenant governor and mayor of New Orleans, the report said. (Matthew Lehner, senior adviser to Sen. Landrieu’s campaign, responded: "Yes, Sen. Landrieu supports her brother's leadership.")
  • 11 senators (six Democrats and five Republicans) earmarked or directed money to a family business, employer or associated nonprofit. Tops was Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who earmarked $19,438,000 to a university where her brothers serve on boards, it said. (Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Sen. Collins, said that while the CREW report says the earmarks benefited family members, the chairmanship of the Board of Trustees of the public University of Maine system held by the senator’s brother, Sam, is an unpaid volunteer position. He also noted that another brother, Greg, serves on the University of Maine Foundation, a fundraising group that is not controlled by the university. “It’s unfortunate that CREW doesn’t have its facts straight and didn’t check with us,” he said.)

Senators collectively paid relatives nearly $1.3 million in salaries and fees and paid family businesses, employers, or associated nonprofits nearly $2.6 million, the report.

The report also included detailed information about reimbursements for 20 senators (six Democrats and 14 Republicans) because their campaigns and leadership PACs reimbursed them or their relatives more than $25,000 collectively over the period, more than is typical. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., was the leader in this category, with reimbursements totaling $481,456, it said.(In response to a request for comment from NBC News, Torrie Miller, a spokeswoman for Shelby, said, “Senator Shelby makes nearly all campaign expenditures for fundraising activities out-of-pocket personally and then receives reimbursement. This is unlike many campaigns and PACs that pay for travel and events separately.”)

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The report also noted that three senators (one Democrat and two Republicans) charged interest on personal loans they made to their own campaigns. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, was reimbursed the most, collecting $14,487 in interest, it said.

A spokeswoman for Risch did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Investigators with CREW, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting ethics and accountability in government and public life , examined financial disclosure forms, campaign finance documents, and other records to conduct the analysis.

The report recommends that laws be tightened to prohibit campaign committees and leadership PACs from hiring or leasing property or purchasing goods or services from relatives of the candidates to avoid any appearance of impropriety. It also said candidates should be prevented from charging interest on loans to their campaigns.