Updated at 7:45 p.m.
There's a blurring of ethics guidelines at the office of a member of Congress from Illinois. Staff to U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., sent election-related messages from their government email accounts, in apparent violation of U.S. House rules.
The Chicago Democrat is already under investigation by the House Ethics Committee, in part for allegations he used taxpayer-funded resources in his bid to win a Senate appointment in 2008.
That practice appears to have continued in the past few months, as Jackson prepared for a primary election challenge from former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson.
The recent emails
As Halvorson moved toward launching her campaign in September and early October of 2011, WBEZ asked for comment from Jackson's staff. In two instances, the aides sent statements from their government e-mail accounts, once with the subject line "Jesse Jr. statement in response to Halvorson" and another titled “Halverson statement" [sic].
In February, an unsolicited press release was sent noting the congressman’s opposition to a proposed immigrant detention center in south suburban Crete, Halvorson's hometown. Deep in that document is a reference to Jackson’s “congressional opponent, Debbie Halvorson,” and a statement from the congressman noting that Halvorson did not speak out on the issue when she was in Congress. The release was sent from a government email account on government letterhead and remains posted on Jackson’s government website.
This past Monday, an unsolicited email, from a Jackson staff member's government email account, contained nothing but a news clip about how a Super PAC is targeting Jackson in the upcoming election.
Did they cross the line?
Shown the four emails, a spokesperson for the House Administration Committee, Salley Wood, said - on their face - the messages "do not conform" to House rules prohibiting the use of government resources for campaign purposes.
The staff director for the House Ethics Committee, Dan Schwager, said in an email that the committee "does not comment on specific factual allegations."
Meredith McGeHee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., said she believed all but one of the emails - the news clip regarding the Super PAC - appeared to cross the ethical line.
"These don’t strike me as particularly egregious examples, but they are inappropriate in my view," McGeHee said. "And an admonishment to all staff as you get close to the election is wise. Because when you start talking about using taxpayer-funded resources, which are only available to incumbents, there’s already such a leg-up that they have. It’s incredibly important to have bright lines and to follow those lines closely."
The House rules make clear a prohibition against using government email accounts for campaign or political purposes.
"[T]he use of one‘s office desktop computer (including one‘s mail.house.gov e-mail address) to send or receive such communications continues to be prohibited," the rules manual reads.
In another section, the rules for similar activity are more vague. The manual states that a press secretary "should not give an interview that is substantially devoted to the campaign, or initiate any call that is campaign-related."
But there is an exception. Press secretaries "in congressional offices may answer occasional questions on political matters, and may also respond to such questions that are merely incidental to an interview focused on the Member‘s official activities."
In neither of the two instances in which WBEZ requested a response from Jackson's staff was the station asking about the congressman's "official activities" - only his potential re-election campaign.
Still, McGeHee does not believe these emails rise to the level of a House Ethics Committee investigation. Neither does Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the group Public Citizen, who said in his experience the House Franking Commission has been more lax when it comes to websites and email than with traditional mail.
A statement from Jackson's campaign was released Tuesday afternoon, after having been vetted by lawyers, according to spokesperson Kitty Kurth.
"The Jackson staff follow the guidelines in the House Ethics manual," Kurth wrote.
Kurth said the emails in question were all appropriate because of a limited exemption allowing press secretaries to "answer occasional questions on political matters." She said all the emails followed requests from some member of the media.
In a separate conversation, Kurth said she was not aware of the language in the House manual prohibiting the use of "mail.house.gov" accounts to send or receive campaign emails.
The campaign's vetted statement also requested that WBEZ reporters not send campaign-related questions to the government email addresses of Jackson's congressional staff "as you continue to put them in to situations which some may find questionable."
It should be noted that in none of the instances of questionable emails did WBEZ send initial requests for comment to the government email addresses of Jackson's staff.
These new questions come as Jackson remains under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for his efforts to convince then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to appoint him to the Senate. A big part of that investigation is whether Jackson directed any sort of pay-to-play offer to get the Senate appointment. He strongly denies that and hasn’t been charged with any crime.
But the other part of the ethics investigation has to do with a similar situation to the one that's arisen in recent weeks: an allegation that Jackson's staff used government resources for political purposes.