DECATUR, Ga. -- More than $70,000 in campaign money has gone from Congressman Hank Johnson's campaign into the pocket of the congressman's wife, Mereda Davis Johnson. Rep. Johnson says his wife has earned every penny.
Democrat Hank Johnson was first elected to Congress following a memorable primary runoff in 2006 over the fiery incumbent Cynthia McKinney. Two years later, Rep. Johnson put his wife Mereda on the campaign payroll-- even though Johnson was the only congressman in the state to run for re-election with no ballot opposition. Federal election records show Johnson's campaign paid Mereda Davis Johnson $8250 in 2006. Mrs. Johnson has remained a presence on the payroll ever since.
"She kind of acts like a quarterback. A lot of people ordinarily just pick up the phone and call her," Johnson said in an interview with 11Alive News. "I think anybody who deals with me knows that Mareda is intimately involved in every aspect of what I do."
Congressional campaigns are financed with voluntary donations. No tax money is involved.
Our analysis of Congressman Johnson's campaign records show that his campaign has paid his wife $73,800 since 2008. The campaign paid her when Johnson faced opposition-- as he did in the Democratic primary in 2014. But it also paid her when he had no opposition -- like the general election of 2014. The campaign has typically paid Mrs. Johnson $1,000 a month. Johnson says she earned it as an unofficial liaison with voters in his district.
"It's easier for them to get to her than it is to get to me. So I think people appreciate having someone they can reach out and get a hold to when they need me," Johnson said. Mrs. Johnson practices law in DeKalb County.
Johnson has office staff in Washington and Georgia, but he says many constituents prefer contacting his wife instead. "It seems like people have naturally gravitated towards her, even though they know that I have an office."
While it is not commonplace for a member of congress to put a spouse on the campaign payroll, it's not illegal either. In fact, federal campaign laws give a wide berth to employing family members.
"It'll strike some people as potentially looking corrupt, even though technically it's not illegal," said Emory University political scientist Dr. Andra Gillespie. She says Rep. Johnson is taking a political risk by keeping his wife on the campaign payroll.
"It's a question of a spouse who is being paid by the campaign to do something that I think some people would see as being part of the normal course of business of being a political spouse. And so that may raise a few eyebrows," Dr. Gillespie said.
Johnson says his wife pulls in less than $12,000 annually from his campaign, which he says is a fraction of what a professional worker would earn doing the same job.
"If she were not working, if she were not earning the money, then she would not be on the payroll," Johnson said.
Dr. Gillespie says voters in Johnson's district will decide whether she's a liability or an asset. So far, Johnson had little trouble getting re-elected.