Michael Steele’s tenure as chairman of the Republican National Committee has been marked by some stunning verbal gaffes, and serious criticism of his management decisions. Two weeks ago, Gentry Collins resigned as political director of the RNC with a bombshell memo detailing fundraising and voter-turnout failures on Steele’s watch. Now the Daily Caller reports that Solomon Yue, a member of the RNC executive committee, is calling for an investigation into “tens of thousands of dollars” paid to Steele’s former personal assistant, her son, and her sister.
The Washington Times points out that RNC members have been uncomfortable with the hiring of Belinda Cook as “RNC liaison to the 2012 convention” since Steele signed the contract in July. The Times quotes former RNC general counsel David Norcross as saying, “I know of no prior ‘liaison’ position, nor do I know what such a person would do… There is no need for a full-time person starting more than two years out from the beginning of the convention.”
Cook does not appear to have the proper requirements for a convention manager, a position that would not normally be filled this early in the election cycle. Her compensation package is astonishing: a $25,000 signing bonus, a $180,000 annual salary, and accommodations at a luxurious waterfront house in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, where the convention will be held. Her son and sister have also been hired by Steele, the latter for “hotel management consulting” to the tune of $25,000. All told, payments to the Cook family over the last three months have exceeded a hundred thousand dollars. That’s a lot of consulting for hotels that won’t be needed for almost two years. For that kind of dough, the RNC could have hired William Shatner away from Priceline.
This all amounts to roughly 18 times the usual spending on convention preparation at this point in a presidential election cycle… shoveled out by a Republican National Committee that’s having trouble paying its bills from the 2008 midterm elections. The official explanation from Steele’s office is that previous convention officials recommended “accelerating the process of picking a convention city,” but the officials in question deny making any such recommendation. They suggested getting an early start on fundraising, not spending. If Steele honestly doesn’t understand the difference, he’s richly qualified for a position with the Obama Administration, not the RNC.
Of course, the obvious reason for all this front-loaded spending is that Steele doesn’t expect to be in the chairman’s office for another term, so he’s writing a few big checks to buy influence, and reward cronies, while he still can. This would make a dismal and outrageous ending for a troubled tenure. It’s not yet clear who will take over the office when Steele vanishes in a cloud of IOUs and rubber checks. Strangely enough, one of the most prominent potential competitors for the position, former senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, chose this weekend to declare his support for Steele, and announce he would not mount a challenge for the RNC seat. The only openly declared candidate thus far is Saul Anuzis, a committee member from Michigan. Disgruntled political director Gentry Collins is thought to be considering a bid as well.
The scandal surrounding the Cook family’s six-figure autumn is likely to prompt a few more declarations from challengers, and increase the pressure on Steele to step aside without running for another term. At this point, that’s the best thing he could do for a Republican National Committee that has given him, and his friends, so much over the past few years.