Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas) after a reception for members of the U.S. Congress in Belgium in August 2015.

Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas) after a reception for members of the U.S. Congress in Belgium in August 2015. (Virginie Lefour/Belga/Zuma Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON - An ethics complaint has been filed against Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas, over what may be nearly 20 impermissible reimbursements made over the years from his campaign account to some of his House staffers for expenditures they made.

At issue isn't what the few thousand dollars in reimbursements bought: food, office supplies and other legitimate campaign-related expenditures.

The complaint, obtained by The Dallas Morning News, instead zeroes in on rules by the Federal Election Commission and the House that classify those reimbursements as contributions. That's problematic because House employees are barred from donating to the campaign of their boss.

One further twist is the fact that Marchant is the top Republican on the House Ethics Committee.

"It's not a huge amount of money, but he should know better," said Pat Pangburn, an Irving resident and longtime Democratic activist, who wrote the complaint this month asking the Office of Congressional Ethics to conduct a formal investigation.

Marchant campaign spokesman Keats Norfleet said in a written statement that the congressman "has always advised members facing questions by the Congressional Ethics Office to cooperate to the fullest extent possible, and he plans to do the same."

The complaint likely reflects that the Republican is expected next year to face perhaps his toughest reelection bid ever. Last year, he won his race by only 3 percentage points. Democrats have tagged his seat as winnable, and Marchant has amassed major campaign cash for the fight.

Pangburn said the issues on Marchant's campaign finance reports came to her attention amid conversations with her longtime friend Lisa Turner, who is state director for the Lone Star Project, a Democratic political action committee that's active in Texas.

The group then helped Pangburn file the complaint, she said.

"I'm incensed," said Pangburn, 75, who served on the Texas Racing Commission under former Democratic Gov. Ann Richards and who has long contributed to Democratic campaigns.

The complaint outlines 18 instances between 2007 and 2017 in which Marchant House staffers received campaign reimbursements, thus appearing to have made impermissible contributions.

The cited staffers, some of whom also worked for the campaign, include Marchant's chief of staff, Brian Thomas. The reimbursements in question add up to nearly $7,800, covering campaign-related expenses like cupcakes for an event, office carpeting and picture framing.

The complaint, which would typically be confidential, asks the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate. That board, upon review, could do nothing or it could refer the matter to the House Ethics Committee. The House panel would then have a variety of options at its disposal.

So how big of a deal is this kind of potential violation?

Brendan Fischer is a campaign finance expert at the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center. Provided by the Morning News with a broad-strokes summary of the kind complaint that was lodged against Marchant, he said he couldn't be sure "how this would shake out."

He explained that "it's not totally uncommon for a member of Congress' staff to also do some work for the campaign." That's fine, as long as the work doesn't interfere with official House work and doesn't involve House resources, he said.

But Fischer also said it's clear that staffers can't contribute to the campaigns of their own bosses - a rule put in place to prevent employees from feeling undue pressure to do so.

It may seem counterintuitive for a reimbursed campaign expense to count as a contribution, given that the outlay is ultimately covered by the campaign. The House ethics manual, however, is explicit in outlining such a scenario and why it's impermissible.

Fischer said it may end up that Marchant's office is asked to do some additional ethics training.

"On one hand, you could view this as a fairly technical violation of the rules and possibly an honest mistake - because it may not be intuitive," he said, adding that further investigation is warranted. "But if there's a pattern ... it might indicate that there's some pressure from above."

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