U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn gave cousin $141K in campaign and taxpayer funds, records show
Records show U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina gave a close family member more than $141,000 since 2020. Their relationship is now drawing attention.Posted — Updated
The documents also show a roughly eight-month period during which the 26-year-old North Carolina congressman paid Stephen Smith, his second cousin, simultaneously from Cawthorn’s congressional office and campaign. The payments were addressed to Smith at a Hendersonville address. The address matches that of Cawthorn's, state voter registration records show.
U.S. House members are prohibited from hiring immediate family members, such as first cousins. But the requirement doesn’t extend to second cousins. Nonetheless, the payments sharpen the focus on the nature of the relationship between Cawthorn and Smith and raise questions from political observers about the perception of family self-dealing.
Luke Ball, a spokesman for Cawthorn, didn’t respond to questions about the congressman's relationship with Smith.
Early Saturday, Cawthorn on Twitter said the media "attacked my scheduler for making a salary" and accused reporters of trying "to annihilate my political career."
Records for the first three months of 2022 haven’t been published.
“My cousin Stephen that they’re attacking is my ADA,” Cawthorn said of Smith in a Wednesday video. “He’s family and he’s my best friend.”
Other filings show Smith has also received more than $80,000 from Cawthorn’s campaign since January 2020, which excludes more than $4,000 in other compensation for campaign supplies and travel reimbursements.
While taking in more than $61,000 from U.S. taxpayers for his congressional work, Smith also received $16,669 as a campaign salary over the eight-month stretch.
Certain chamber rules restrict how congressional employees interact with an incumbent’s campaign operations. For instance, congressional staff members are allowed to work on campaigns as long as they do so outside their regular working hours.
“A second cousin is not going to be covered under any nepotism rule, so, in this situation, nepotism would be a hard issue to be concerned with,” said Payne, who previously investigated ethics complaints as deputy chief counsel for the Office of Congressional Ethics.
There are limits to how much outside money a senior staff member could receive beyond their congressional work, but because Smith was among the lowest paid on Cawthorn’s staff as a scheduler, Payne said Smith wouldn’t be subject to outside earned income limits.
The hiring of a family member to a congressional office could raise eyebrows over Smith’s qualifications. “It’s not that common to have close relatives on your payroll,” Payne said.
William Hall, a Webster University political scientist who previously worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and former Republican U.S. Sen. John Danforth of Missouri, said it would be up to voters to decide whether Cawthorn’s actions are disqualifying.
“The people have the opportunity to make a determination of what is considered appropriate,” Hall said.
Cawthorn faces ethics complaint
Cawthorn, who is running for reelection, was elected to the U.S. House after turning 25, the minimum age required to hold office. In 2020, he campaigned for the seat of outgoing U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, who decided to leave western North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District seat to become former President Donald Trump’s chief of staff.
A political newcomer, Cawthorn defeated 11 Republican primary competitors and handily won a June 2020 primary runoff election against real estate agent Lynda Bennett, who had the backing of Meadows and Trump. Cawthorn went on to defeat his Democratic general election opponent, Moe Davis, and has since aligned himself closely with the former president.
Meanwhile, a political action group with the objective of unseating Cawthorn, has ramped up its attacks, releasing potentially damaging private videos of Cawthorn in recent weeks. The American Muckrakers PAC, a political group that runs the Fire Madison website, said it had filed an ethics complaint against Cawthorn last week asking investigators to look into Cawthorn’s relationship with Smith.
The Office of Congressional Ethics declined to comment on whether it is examining the political group’s complaint. “In adherence to the rules that govern our office, I’m unable to provide any sort of comment,” said an email from Bill Beaman, a spokesperson for the office.
In a seven-minute video response Wednesday, Cawthorn called the video “stupid locker room talk between two cousins that grew up like brothers taken long before I served in Congress.”
Cawthorn swiftly confirmed the video’s authenticity, labeling it as “blackmail.”
“Years ago, in this video, I was being crass with a friend, trying to be funny,” he said on Twitter. “We were acting foolish, and joking. That’s it.”
Cawthorn’s campaign declined to identify the person in the video.
Cawthorn losing sway with GOP leaders
Cawthorn has become a national figure during his short time in Congress, garnering the backing of Trump and positioning himself as an anti-establishment candidate.
North Carolina law doesn’t prohibit U.S. House candidates from running outside the district where they reside.
Harp didn’t respond to a request for comment. Cawthorn in a Saturday tweet defended himself, Smith and Harp, writing, "We’re all in our 20s. Trying to make a difference in politics. And we’ll keep fighting."
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and the state’s top two Republican state lawmakers, Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger, support Edwards, who is widely viewed as Cawthorn’s top primary opponent.
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