Corey Mitchell

Washington – Democrat Keith Ellison has done it. So has Republican Erik Paulsen. Democrat Collin Peterson still does it.

The three members of the Minnesota U.S. House delegation have used campaign funds to hire or pay family members, a perfectly legal practice that some watchdog groups view as questionable.

Now a bill introduced by California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier would bar members of Congress from hiring family members through their campaign committees or political action committees and set strict disclosure requirements, as well as other reforms.

"Family Affair," a report compiled by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, sparked the MERIT (Making Every Representative's Integrity Transparent) Act.

The 2012 study found that more than 80 U.S. House members had used campaign funds to pay family members or used a family business.

The bill's definition of "relative" goes well beyond immediate family to include in-laws, stepsiblings, stepchildren or stepparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins.

Four of Minnesota's eight House members, Ellison, Paulsen, Peterson and Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, were mentioned in the 2012 report, which covered the 2008 and 2010 election cycles.

Records show that only Peterson's campaign has continued employing a relative. His son, Elliott Peterson, serves as his campaign treasurer. During the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, Elliott Peterson earned more than $100,000 in salary. The campaign also reimbursed him for nearly $7,000 for cellphone and Internet expenses.

Campaign finance records show that he has earned more than $55,000 during the current election cycle.

Collin Peterson has defended the hire, saying it made financial and practical sense to hire a trusted family member. The congressman said another campaign recently offered him a similar job, and he quoted that campaign a higher price.

Ellison's campaign paid his son, Isaiah Ellison, $7,018 in salary during the 2010 election cycle.

"If a family member is doing legitimate campaign work and is fairly compensated compared to others in a similar position, I don't have a problem with family members being hired on a campaign," Ellison said.

Paulsen's campaign paid his wife, Carolyn, $9,729 in salary and reimbursed her for another $941 in travel and office supply expenses during the 2010 election cycle. His campaign staff did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation.

Walz's campaign reimbursed his family $29,600 for travel, child care costs, mileage expenses and food during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles.

Aides for the congressman said he is studying the legislation and would consider the bill if it reaches the House floor for a vote.

At this point, the bill's prospects for passage are murky. It has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, but has only three cosponsors.