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Holding Georgia Congressman accountable over rent

1:18 PM, Nov 7, 2013   |    comments
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ATLANTA -- With all eyes on Washington over the budget and the recent government shut down, we, at 11Alive, thought this might be a good time to hold our Georgia Congressmen accountable over how they are controlling their own budgets.  

Money's tight, times are tough and people all over are looking for ways to save money but are local Congressmen doing everything they can to pinch pennies on their district offices.

According to the Members' Congressional Handbook - 'There is no limit on the number and size of district offices a Member may establish'.  But one watchdog group points out that just because they can, doesn't mean they should. We also found, that in some cases, Congressmen are paying rent to campaign contributors.

"There's lots of space in here," said 11Alive Investigative Reporter, Ross McLaughlin, as he peered into Congressman Tom Price's (R-District 6) district office.

"I'm with 11Alive Do you mind if we take a tour of your office?" McLaughlin asked.

"Sure. Let me go grab our district director," said an office worker.

Because after analyzing what Georgia Congressmen are paying for their district offices, we discovered some from both parties stood out above the rest.

INTERACTIVE MAP | Find all 14 Georgia Congressmen's lease payments by clicking here. Some are renting as many as 3 district offices, while others like John Barrow access local government offices to save money. 

"You're welcome to come in," said Andy Phelan, Communications Director at Congressman Hank Johnson's ( D- District 4) office.

We found their office lease rates by looking at thousands of pages of public records for all 14 Georgia Congressmen. The rents, to a single landlord, ranged from $800 to more than $5,000 a month. Lease rates can vary depending on location, building and condition but two stood out - Democrat Congressman Hank Johnson at $5,825 a month, in Lithonia and Republican Tom Price, at $5,000 a month, in Roswell.

 "They have an obligation to be frugal," responded Chris Farrell from Judicial Watch, aconservative DC watchdog group.  He says Congressmen need to set an example.

 "Just because the money's available doesn't mean it should all be spent," Farrell told 11Alive.

 "What do you think taxpayers will think when they see that list and they see your name at the top?" McLaughlin asked Congressman Johnson.

"They will determine for themselves whether we are being good stewards of the taxpayers' money," Johnson replied.

"We got a conference room," Phelan said as he gave us a tour of the office.

He showed us 3,830 square feet for Hank Johnson's 10 district office workers.

Congressman Price has 3,782 square feet for his 6 district office workers.

A researcher, at a global real estate firm, told us the average professional office space, these days, is about 170 square feet per employee. Congressman Price's office has 630 square feet per employee, nearly 4 times as much. Johnson's office, at 383 square feet per employee, is twice as much. 

"When thousands and thousands of feet of office space are rented for a handful of employees, that's not what the public is expecting," Farrell said, when hearing about the amount of space being rented.

"At the time, I will tell you, when we secured this office it was the best deal that was available that was suitable for our needs," Congressman Johnson said while explaining his decision to lease the space.

We tried to talk to Congressman Price about his space. His spokesperson sent us an email stating: 'last year a decision was made to downsize our operation from two offices to one.' The email also pointed out that the Chief Administrative Office approves all leases. But when we looked at the numbers for rent in 2011, Price was paying $2,564 a month. Now it's almost double and how about Hank Johnson?

"Would you think you could find a better deal if you looked now?" McLaughlin asked the representative.

"Perhaps,"Johnson, replied.

He could. Johnson is in Class 'B' office space, while that type of space is limited in Lithonia, we found a building 3 miles away, about 450 square feet smaller, for $400 less a month. Or he could step down into a class 'C' space at a nearby shopping center, for $2,985 a month - it would save taxpayers $34,000 a year.

Congressman Price is also in a class 'B' space, all inclusive. We found similar class 'B' space, less than 3 miles away, at $3,700 a month -everything included;utilities, janitorial and maintenance. That'd save taxpayers more than $15,000 a year. 

Here's something else we learned, both Congressman received campaign contributions from their current landlords prior to moving in.

"There's a perception that can be created or exist that in some way there's favoritism," Farrell said.

There are no laws against renting space from a campaign contributor but another DC watchdog group - Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, CREW, told 11Alive, 'Anytime a member of Congress is renting space from a campaign contributor or a friend, red flags are raised.'

Since 2010 Congressman Price has received $17,520 in campaign contributions from his landlord - $12,320 of that before moving into his new office.

Congressman Johnson received $1,500 from his landlord before moving into his new space.

"His contributions make any difference to your decision to stay in this place?" McLaughlin asked representative, Johnson.

"No they did not," responded Johnson.

He believes the amount of campaign money Congressman Price received from his landlord is much more significant.

"It certainly would raise more questions than a $1,500 contribution," said Johnson, referring the money Tom Price has received. "If you were here not talking to me. You would be talking to Tom Price."

"And we're going to be talking to Tom Price. We didn't treat anybody any differently," McLaughlin responded.

We reached out to Congressman Price 7 times, visiting his office, emailing and calling about our story, but Congressman Price, who is Vice Chairman of the House Budget Committee, did not want to talk to us.

"If the Congressman is dodging you, it's shameful,"said Judicial Watch's Chris Farrell.

We had to dig into our archives for his thoughts about spending.

In 2011 Price was recorded saying, "We need to structurally change and fundamentally change the way Washington spends money."

"Our greatest concern is that our public officials be accountable. They owe the public not only their service but their best judgment and their discretion," Farrell told us.

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