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Exclusive: Ex-Farenthold aide told House Ethics Committee she was pressured to perform campaign duties

A former aide to GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold contacted the House Ethics Committee last week to detail what she said wer...

Posted: Dec. 22, 2017 8:12 AM
Updated: Dec. 22, 2017 4:25 PM

A former aide to GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold contacted the House Ethics Committee last week to detail what she said were regular requests from the congressman and his chief of staff to perform campaign-related duties even though she was never paid by or volunteered with his congressional campaign.

Elizabeth Peace, who was Farenthold's communications director from May 2015 to March 2017, told committee lawyers last Wednesday that while she worked for the Texas lawmaker, she was pressured to, and at least on one occasion, yelled at by Farenthold's chief of staff to help with campaign efforts, according to a source familiar with Peace's conversation with committee lawyers.

Peace alleged to the lawyers that the campaign-related duties she was repeatedly asked to handle included answering media inquiries that were explicitly about Farenthold's 2016 re-election campaign and making fliers, this source said. She also claimed that such requests were sometimes sent directly to her official House email account, and on more than one occasion, she was asked to perform these duties when she was physically at Farenthold's congressional office on Capitol Hill during regular work hours. On some of the occasions when she was directed to do campaign-related work during work hours, Peace told lawyers, she did so on a House computer or laptop.

House rules generally prohibit the use of official resources for campaign or political purposes. If Peace's allegations to the ethics committee are found to be true, they could mark campaign finance violations for Farenthold. CNN has not independently confirmed Peace's allegations.

According to the source, Peace insisted to lawyers that she never volunteered with Farenthold's campaign and was never a paid campaign aide, and she alleged that she tried on multiple occasions to express her discomfort with such requests, even as she felt pressure from Farenthold's chief of staff to comply with his requests.

On Thursday, the ethics committee announced that it was expanding its ongoing sexual harassment investigation into Farenthold to also look at whether his congressional staff "may have used House resources, including staff time, to benefit his congressional campaigns," as well as whether anyone acting on Farenthold's behalf "may have required members of his congressional staff to work on his congressional campaigns." An investigation into allegations does not indicate that any wrongdoing occurred.

Reached on the phone Thursday evening, Peace declined to comment, but confirmed that she spoke with House Ethics Committee lawyers last week.

The House Ethics Committee declined to comment for this story, per its usual protocol of not commenting on any ongoing investigations.

Farenthold's chief of staff, Bob Haueter, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Farenthold's office also did not respond to a request for comment about the ethics committee's expansion of its investigation into the congressman.

Peace's fresh allegations against Farenthold and his chief of staff further jeopardize the GOP congressman's political future. He announced last week that he would not seek re-election after his current term.

Farenthold was already being investigated by the House Ethics Committee for allegations of sexual harassment from another Farenthold ex-staffer, Lauren Greene.

And last week, CNN reported revelations from another former aide, Michael Rekola, that Farenthold regularly made sexually demeaning comments in the office and was verbally abusive to staff. Farenthold acknowledged to CNN that he referred to aides as "f***tards," but that it was "in jest" and inappropriate in hindsight. Rekola has also reached out to the House Ethics Committee with the intent of cooperating with its ongoing probe if he is called on to do so.

House rules generally prohibit the use of official resources for campaign or political purposes. Those resources include congressional office equipment like computers, as well as congressional staff time. House aides are permitted to do campaign work only if they do it outside of congressional space without using congressional resources. They may also volunteer to help with the campaign on their own time.

Campaign finance expert and lawyer Cleta Mitchell told CNN that there were "multiple problems" in the scenario that Peace is said to have described to House Ethics Committee lawyers.

"First of all, you're not a volunteer if somebody is directing you to do something ... Directing her to do this as part of her job -- that's bad," Mitchell said.

Mitchell said that Peace's claim that she used a House computer, as well as her allegation that she felt forced to handle campaign-related requests when she was physically at Farenthold's congressional office. "You're never supposed to be doing any kind of campaign work in a congressional office, ever," Mitchell said.

There are rare exceptions to when a congressional staffer might also handle campaign-related tasks, campaign finance experts say. A lawmaker's scheduler, for example, may also keep track of a member's campaign-related events, though they should not become any more deeply involved in the execution of those events unless they are explicitly volunteering for or being paid by the campaign.

The day after CNN published its story about Rekola, Farenthold announced that he would not run for re-election next year. In a video message, the congressman acknowledged that he had created an unhealthy workplace environment.

"It accommodated destructive gossip, offhand comments, off-color jokes and behavior that in general was less than professional," he said. "And I allowed the personal stress of the job to manifest itself in angry outbursts and too often a failure to treat people with the respect they deserved. That was wrong."

Farenthold has denied any wrongdoing in the Greene case.

Following the Greene and Rekola accusations, House Speaker Paul Ryan did not call on Farenthold to resign immediately, saying last week that he agreed with his colleague's decision to leave office after next year.

House rules generally prohibit the use of official resources for campaign purposes

Elizabeth Peace was Blake Farenthold's communications director from May 2015 to March 2017

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