Madison Cawthorn engaged in ‘cut-and-dried ethics violation’ with payments to chief staffer: report
Madison Cawthorn speaking with attendees at the 2020 Student Action Summit. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Embattled Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) is facing a number of personal and ethical scandals as he faces a primary challenge for a second term.

A new investigation by The Daily Beast found the North Carolina Republican appears to have committed a "cut-and-dried ethics violation" by paying his chief of staff Blake Harp -- a longtime friend -- $131,278 last year, which is actually on the low end for congressional staffers, but ethics experts say the specific amount suggests an attempt to skirt House rules.

“After looking over Cawthorn’s filings, it appears they were trying to keep Harp just under the senior staff level to pay him well above what he’s allowed to make from the campaign, but may not have been able to successfully pull off the scheme,” said Jordan Libowitz, director of communications for watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “While Harp stayed a couple hundred dollars under the senior staff limit for the year, the rule is actually making above that rate for ‘more than 90 days,’ which it appears that he did in the fourth quarter — which was 92 days.”

House ethics rules limit congressional staff to only $29,595 in outside income each year, and Federal Election Commission filings show Cawthorn's campaign paid Harp a combined $73,237 in direct payments and payments a company he owns, but that outside limit applies only to "senior" staff, and the lawmaker's office appears to have made an effort to avoid triggering that designation.

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Congressional expense reports show Harp made about $1,500 less than the annual threshold that would earn that specific classification, but ethics rules calculate pay at 90-day intervals, not annually, and Libowitz said Cawthorn's office slipped up by paying Harp at a senior staffer rate the last quarter of 2021.

Switching Harp’s salary to his newly incorporated LLC doesn’t solve the problem, Libowtiz said, but “only increases them" because, under House rules, “it’s the same income.”