UPDATED: Is Sen. David Vitter abusing the congressional franking privilege in pursuit of governor’s office?

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By Robert Mann

U.S. Sen. David Vitter may be in violation of U.S. Senate rules regarding official, franked mail that his office sent to Louisiana voters in early July, omitting a required disclaimer that indicates the letters were printed and mailed at taxpayer expense.

The first letter apparently targets women voters, a group Vitter has struggled to win over in his quest to become Louisiana governor, and it raises more questions about whether Vitter is using federal resources to support his campaign for governor. (Vitter’s aggressive use of Senate “field hearings” has also been questioned. Vitter, alone, is responsible for almost half of the field hearing held by U.S. senators in 2015.) The second letter is apparently aimed a gun-control opponents and stresses Vitter’s commitment to “Second Amendment rights.”

Vitter’s press secretary and his campaign press secretary declined my repeated requests for more information about the letters, including why they do not have the required disclaimers.

Strangely, when first questioned about the first letter last Friday, Vitter’s Senate’s press secretary, Lindsay Bembenek, suggested that I contact, Luke Bolar, Vitter’s campaign spokesperson, for more information. Asked why she would refer me to Vitter’s campaign press secretary, when the questions concerned official Senate correspondence, Bembenek did not reply.

The July 2 letter by Vitter, written on official U.S. Senate stationery and sent to an undetermined number of constituents. “I want to take this opportunity to update you on my efforts to protect the health and safety of women and the unborn,” the letter begins.

The second letter, dated July 6, begins: “I want to take a moment to update you on the letter I wrote to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Director Ted Jones regarding their attempt to ban M855 ‘green tip ammo.'”

On all copies of the letter I obtained, they are addressed to “Dear Friend.” In the case of the July 2 mailing, the individuals who received the letter told me they have never written to Vitter about this or any other issue.

In that letter, Vitter discusses alleged mishandling of “confidential patient information” by a Baton Rouge abortion clinic, as well as Vitter’s sponsorship of “the Pregnant Women Health and Safety Act,” which Vitter described as a bill that “would require any physician who performs an abortion to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.”

Vitter ends the four-paragraph letter, declaring: “I’m 100 percent pro-life, and I’m committed to protecting the health and safety on pregnant women and their unborn babies. Rest assured that I will continue to fight to hold the Delta Clinic in Baton Rouge and any other abortion clinic accountable for any and all violations of health, safety, and privacy laws.”

The first letter may be aimed at shoring up or increasing Vitter’s support among women, but it does not contain the following disclaimer as required by Senate rules: “PREPARED, PUBLISHED, AND MAILED AT TAXPAYER EXPENSE.” According to the U.S. Senate Committee on Ethics, that phrase must appear “at the bottom of the first page of the mailing” and must be “no smaller than 7 point font.”

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Senate rules require the phrase be printed on all mass-mailing letters. The question, which Vitter’s office would not answer, was whether this letter is a mass mailing as defined by Senate rules. The Senate Ethic Committee defines a mass mailing as “a mailing of 500 or more substantially similar pieces of mail within one session of Congress, regardless of whether the pieces are mailed at same time or separately. All franked mass mailings must be prepared and mailed by the Senate Service Department. Mass mailing funds are limited to $50,000 each fiscal year.”

The fact that each letter begins “Dear Friend” is one clue that the letter could be a mass mailing and, therefore, in violation of Senate rules.

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While Vitter appears to be an aggressive mailer of postcards announcing town hall meetings, it does not seem that he has sent out mass mailings before the July 2 mailing. An official with the office of the Secretary of the Senate told me on Friday, “Senator Vitter has filed negative reports indicating no mass mailings since 2nd quarter 2014.”

If Vitter is abusing taxpayer funds for partisan political purposes, it would not the first time. During his 2010 re-election, Vitter used taxpayer funded town hall meetings to attack his Democratic opponent, then-U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon.

And, as blogger Tom Aswell has noted, Vitter’s alleged abuse of the frank would not “be the first time Vitter has skated on the edge of campaign rules.”

In January of 2014, Vitter was up against a state law that prohibited him from using his seven-figure campaign funds amassed as a federal office-holder for a state campaign.

No problem for a manipulators like Vitter and Charlie Spies, a Republican lawyer who was instrumental in launching Mitt Romney’s largest super PAC. In early 2013, Spies created the Fund for Louisiana’s Future and registered the super PAC both federally and in Louisiana in order “to support Sen. Vitter whether he ran for re-election to the Senate or for governor.”

Thus did Vitter become perhaps the first politician in the U.S. to be the largest single funder of his own super PAC.

A former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission said Vitter’s funding of his own super PAC, unprecedented to that point, raised the issue of the separation of super PACs and a candidate’s campaign “to a new level.”

Postscript: Shortly after I posted this piece, Bembenek responded to my questions with this statement: “Constituent services and communication have always been top priorities for Senator Vitter. That’s why he has held more than 385 in person town hall meetings, 218 telephone town hall meetings, and responds to every constituent who calls or writes him. He also sends out regular issue specific updates and email newsletters.”

I responded to Bembenek that she did not come close to answering my specific questions, which were:

  1. Why does the letter not have the disclaimer, required by Senate rules, that the mailing was printed and mailed at taxpayer expense? In particular, the Senate Ethics Committee states: ” At the bottom of the first page of the mailing the phrase “PREPARED, PUBLISHED, AND MAILED AT TAXPAYER EXPENSE” must appear no smaller than 7 point font.” ( http://www.ethics.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/franking) This letter does not contain this statement. Why is that?
  2. How many people received this particular mailing?
  3. How were the names selected? This person told me she has never written or contacted your office before. How might you have obtained her name for this mailing?
  4. How many franked mail letters have been mailed this calendar year by your office (i.e., how many different letters on different subjects) and how many constituents have received various letters from Sen. Vitter’s office this year (not counting, of course, letters in response to inquiries about issues or constituent service-related matters)?
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4 Responses to UPDATED: Is Sen. David Vitter abusing the congressional franking privilege in pursuit of governor’s office?

  1. Barbara says:

    Forwarded to David Vitter.

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  2. Reblogged this on LAB Louisiana Boy and commented:

    Good read in many respects; for anyone not familiar with the franking privilege the piece offers a little introduction; it covers another example of abuse at taxpayer expense. Also, I fell out of my chair laughing at Lindsay Bembenek’s response that the Senator ‘responds to every constituent who calls or writes him.’ Even when I still resided in LA or since when doing something on behalf of someone back home I have never received even the ‘valuable’ form letter reply from his office which typically begins “Your issue is of vital importance just as my work regarding issue ‘blah blah’ is of vital importance which is why I introduced ‘yada yada’ or am blocking any Senate business by filibustering….”

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  3. Kati says:

    Ok, this is crazy. I am so thankful that you keep pushing and writing. Those are my tax dollars going to those spam letters!

    My question is, how is it legal that a Press Secretary for a publicly elected official may deny requests from the press or public? Are they, by their job requirements, not just… and go with me on this illustration, here, I know it’s strange.. but aren’t they biological versions of files subject to Freedom of Information Act?

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  4. Pingback: Mail hail: What’s with all these ‘official’ letters from Sen. David Vitter? | Something Like the Truth

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