Sen. Ron Johnson faces ethics complaint over $280,000 in gifts to former staffer and wife

Federal records reported on LegiStorm, a website that tracks congressional staffing, show Johnson and his wife gave Blando and Blando’s wife each $24,000 in fiscal year 2014, $28,000 in 2016 and in 2017, and $30,000 in 2018 and 2020, for a total of $280,000.

Blando’s salary was $168,999.85 in fiscal year 2014; $169,458.96 in fiscal years 2016, 2017 and 2018 — 4 cents shy of the maximum in those years; and $172,789.68 in fiscal year 2020, according to the complaint filed by Wisconsin resident Laurene Bach.

And before you say to yourself, “Oh, how generous of him,” this appears to be yet another case of a high-profile Republican politician believing the rules simply don’t apply to him.

The Senate has ethics rules meant to limit how much congressional aides can be compensated and also how much and from whom they can receive gifts. The Johnsons’ cash gifts to Blando appear to follow one guideline allowing aides to receive gifts from senators, but appear to clash with another guideline saying cash gifts aren’t acceptable. They also raise questions about whether they are an attempt to circumvent the compensation limits.

While these gifts certainly appear improper, there’s some question about which Senate rule applies. The Senate has put limits on the gifts senators and their staff are allowed to accept, though the Senate Ethics Manual notes that they may take gifts from senators and Senate employees “with no restrictions on the dollar value of the gift.” But another section of the manual specifically notes that a “gift of cash or a cash equivalent (for example stocks or bonds) is not an acceptable gift, unless it is from a relative or is part of an inheritance.”

According to Kedric Payne, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a government watchdog group, Johnson could still evade responsibility, but he might be in trouble if it’s determined that he was attempting to skirt staff compensation rules.

“These ‘gifts’ appear to violate the rules for when a Senator uses personal funds to compensate staff,” said Payne. “An investigation is needed to determine if these payments were intended as compensation for staff work, which requires tax and other payroll withholdings under the ethics rules.”

When contacted by The Wisconsin State Journal, Johnson spokesperson Alexa Henning “declined to specify why Johnson made the payments, but noted Johnson first contacted Blando in 2003 after Blando was diagnosed with cancer, and Johnson offered to pay for his continued treatment.”

And that sounds really nice and everything. Johnson wanted to pay for his friend’s vital medical treatments—while denying rudimentary health care to millions of less well-connected Americans (the gormless goober is still talking about repealing Obamacare, FFS)—but ours is still a rules-based society, and Johnson appears to have run afoul of those rules. If he’d wanted to pay for his friend’s cancer treatments without violating Senate ethics guidelines, he could have started a GoFundMe or hosted a bake sale, like so many other Americans are forced to do thanks to the cruelty and shortsightedness of senators like Ron Johnson. And while Johnson might think he’s actually helping, his actions merely perpetuate the cycle of dependency among people with fatal diseases who really should remember that this country was built on rugged individualism. 

I mean, my ancestors immigrated to Wisconsin in the late 1800s with loose change in their pockets, not a whole U.S. senator. Pick yourself up by your bootstraps, man! This is America! Not some country with universal health care and a higher life expectancy than Estonia and Cuba. Why does Johnson want to change the very fabric of our country? 

For shame, senator. For shame.

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