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

Bryan Anderson
, WRAL state government reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — A relative and close adviser to U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn has pocketed more than $141,000 from taxpayers and campaign donors since 2020, according to congressional and campaign payroll records.

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."

Smith was listed as a congressional office scheduler to Cawthorn and received $32,744 between Jan. 4, 2021, and Aug. 22, 2021, according to quarterly statements of disbursements published by the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House. Smith wasn’t listed under Cawthorn’s office personnel section in the final months of 2021. Instead, he served as an "ADA aide," a reference to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Between Aug. 1, 2021, and Dec. 31, 2021, Smith earned $28,487 from the new position.

Records for the first three months of 2022 haven’t been published.

Cawthorn, who was left partially paralyzed after a car accident and now uses a wheelchair, has been assisted by Smith on the campaign trail. Smith has helped Cawthorn stand up on stages at events, including an April 9 political rally in Johnston County.

“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.

Kedric Payne, vice president of the nonpartisan watchdog Campaign Legal Center, said Cawthorn’s decision to hire a family member is unusual but doesn’t constitute a clear violation of federal law.

“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.

Cawthorn is now seeking reelection in the district, where he faces seven primary challengers, including state Sen. Chuck Edwards and local GOP official Michele Woodhouse. Cawthorn has alienated former allies and supporters while also further turning off those who had already disliked him.

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.

Among the group’s exhibits in the complaint were sexual references made in messages tied to peer-to-peer payment app transactions between the two. The complaint also included a video showing Smith placing his hand on Cawthorn’s crotch. The video was first published by The Daily Mail.

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.”

After Cawthorn’s response video was posted on his social media channels, American Muckrakers published a graphic video of Cawthorn naked and simulating a sex act near someone he describes as a friend.

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.

Cawthorn spoke at a rally for Trump shortly before a mob broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Cawthorn is now facing a ballot challenge, with a group of voters arguing he shouldn’t be allowed to run due to his alleged involvement in the walkup to the insurrection. Cawthorn has denied wrongdoing and sought to prevent state elections officials from considering the request that he be taken off the ballot.
Cawthorn drew the ire of state lawmakers last year after announcing he’d run outside his home district to pursue a more politically favorable area outside of Charlotte. The move was viewed by political observers as an effort to stifle a bid from state House Speaker Tim Moore.

North Carolina law doesn’t prohibit U.S. House candidates from running outside the district where they reside.

A redrawn congressional map prompted Cawthorn to return his campaign to his home district, which represents Asheville and extends to Cherokee County. Since announcing his move back to the 11th Congressional District on Feb. 28, the congressman has faced a relentless string of outside attacks over his comments and actions.
Cawthorn was cited for bringing a loaded gun to an airport for the second time in little more than a year and has faced allegations of potentially unlawful overpayments to Blake Harp, his chief of staff.
The Daily Beast on Thursday reported the alleged overpayments, with Harp accused of surpassing outside income limits for senior staff members through his business, EMP Strategies.

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."

One of Cawthorn’s closest allies, Triangle-area congressional candidate Bo Hines—who has paid more than $9,000 to Harp’s business, according to campaign finance records—has sought to distance himself from Cawthorn.
Top Republicans have also created distance, especially after Cawthorn in March called Ukraine’s president a “thug” and alleged that Republican colleagues invited him to sex parties. Cawthorn walked back his claims during a tense meeting with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, McCarthy told reporters in March.

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.


Copyright 2024 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.