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More than a dozen activist groups, including several based in Arizona, have filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee asking for an investigation into media reports that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) required her Senate staff to run personal errands such as grocery shopping and getting her home internet fixed.
Sinema’s spokeswoman has denied the allegations, which stem from a 37-page document that The Daily Beast reported about in December that was allegedly intended to guide aides who personally staff Sinema and set her schedule.
The document was not provided to Sinema’s office or The Hill for verification.
The document, which emerged shortly before Christmas, is now getting attention from an array of advocacy groups such as the Revolving Door Project, a government watchdog group that scrutinizes executive branch appointees; Common Defense, a veterans-led grassroots organization; and For All, a grassroots organizing group founding by progressive activist Kai Newkirk.
They want the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate.
The ethics complaint is an early sign of the bruising battle that Sinema faces with progressive groups and donors if she runs for reelection after leaving the Democratic Party to register as an Independent.
Groups that may line up behind candidate Rep. Ruben Gallego (Ariz.) or another Democrat who runs for Sinema’s seat are already calling for the Ethics Committee to take a close look at her use of taxpayer-funded resources while in office.
“It has been reported — and is apparently substantiated by both written evidence and personal testimony — that the senator has enlisted staff to conduct a wide variety of activities unrelated to their job responsibilities,” the groups wrote in a Feb. 2 letter to Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the panel’s vice chairman.
“The activities that the senator has allegedly required of staff appear to be unambiguous violations of the Senate Ethics Committee guidelines that interpret the rules adopted by the Senate,” they wrote.
They cited reports that the memo allegedly instructed Sinema’s executive assistant to contact the senator at the beginning of the work week in Washington to “ask if she needs groceries” and states Sinema would reimburse the aide through CashApp.
The memo reported on by The Daily Beast also allegedly instructs Sinema’s staff to “call Verizon to schedule a repair” if the internet stops working at her apartment and to wait there to let the technician in to fix it.
Sinema’s spokeswoman Hannah Hurley told The Daily Beast in December that “the alleged information — sourced from anonymous quotes and a purported document I can’t verify — is not in line with official guidance from Sen. Sinema’s office and does not represent official policies of Sen. Sinema’s office.”
The Daily Beast didn’t provide the document containing the alleged staff guidelines to Sinema’s office to avoid revealing the identity of the source who shared it.
Sinema’s office in response to questions from The Hill about the new letter to the Ethics panel pointed to Hurley’s statement from December.
Signatories to the letter include Arizona AANHPI Advocates, the Arizona Democracy Resource Center, Arizona Students Association, Fuerte Arts Collective, Patriotic Millionaires, Presente.org/Alianza Americas, Progress AZ, Progressives for Democracy in America – Arizona, Sunrise Movement Tempe and Vets Forward.
Ethics complaints against senators are considered by their colleagues, and punishments are often minimal.
A Democratic strategist called the ethics complaint “a pretty transparent political move by dark money groups that will go nowhere.”
Yet the letter is also an indication of Sinema’s new vulnerability.
Many Senate Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Democratic Senatorial Committee Chairman Gary Peters (Mich.) won’t say whether they’ll back her against a Democratic challenger.
Sinema had come under attack from the left before she became a political independent as she broke from progressives on issues such as ending the filibuster, raising the minimum wage and key elements of President Biden’s sweeping climate, tax and health care agenda known as the Build Back Better.
The advocacy groups say that the “most troubling” language in the alleged guidelines instructs staff on how to schedule coffee meetings with lobbyists and donors and to schedule fundraisers within regular work hours.
They say raises possible violations of Senate Ethics guidelines and want the Ethics Committee to review the document and whether any of its guidelines were implemented.
“Your committee’s guideline clearly states that ‘Senate staff are compensated for the purpose of assisting senators in their official legislative and representational duties, and not for the purpose of performing personal or other non-official activities for themselves or on behalf of others,’” they wrote.
“The Senate ethics manual recommends staffers keep time logs of their congressional duties if they also engage in campaign activity to avoid attacks or the perception of impropriety. We urge the committee to seek these records and investigate whether Sen. Sinema is directing staffers to perform political tasks while on Senate duty,” they wrote.
Coons and Lankford, the chairman and vice chairman of the Ethics panel, confirmed Thursday that the committee accepts complaints filed by outside groups but cited their standing policy of not commenting on any specific allegations.
“Anybody can file complaints,” Lankford said, explaining the committee only responds to complaints and doesn’t conduct prospective investigations of senators.
No one outside a small circle will know when or if the committee reviews the matter.
“We work very quietly,” he added. “We don’t talk about cases at all.”
Aaron Marquez, the executive director of Vets Forward, a group that organizes veterans to mobilize voters, said high-ranking military officers have received disciplinary action in the past for using staff for personal business.
“In 2018, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy faced allegations of similar violations, resulting in his sudden retirement amid ongoing investigation of a toxic work environment,” he said. “Sinema’s oath says that she’ll well and faithfully discharge the office of U.S. senator. These reports in the press seem like a clear violation of her oath and the ethics of U.S. Senate that warrant a formal investigation.”
Craig Holman, a congressional ethics expert at Public Citizen, a government watchdog group, said the allegations if proved true would amount to a violation of Senate rules.
“If those are actual policies that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema introduced on her staff that would violate the rule against using official resources and staff for personal purposes. Now Sen. Sinema has denied she did any of that,” he said.
“It certainly deserves an investigation,” he added. “The Ethics Committee could subpoena and ask her.”
But he predicted it won’t take any public action, citing its history of secrecy and infrequent doling out of punishments.
“The Ethics Committee has a long history of burying these types of complaints,” he said.
This story was updated at 12:36 a.m.