Small donation raises big questions for Indiana Congressman

FILE - In this June 17, 2017 file photo, Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., appears on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WTHR) – A campaign contribution to Rep. Luke Messer (R – Indiana) is the focus of a federal ethics complaint filed this week on Capitol Hill. The complaint alleges Messer violated federal law and Congressional rules by accepting a $500 donation in exchange for assisting a Muncie businessman.

The congressman’s campaign staff insist the complaint is unfounded and a politically-motivated attack designed to derail Messer’s announced bid for the U.S. Senate, but some political and ethics watchdogs suggest the case deserves further scrutiny.

“It certainly doesn't look good,” said Peter Murphy, director of University of Indianapolis Center for Ethics. “The appearance of a conflict of interest is worrisome because it erodes trust, and clearly Congress needs to do things right now to regain trust.”

A bank executive gets help

The allegation against Messer dates back to March, when the chief financial officer of Mutual Bank visited the congressman’s Capitol Hill office to seek assistance. Mutual Bank CFO Chris Cook was frustrated with federal regulators. For years, he had worked with the Federal Reserve Bank in an effort to establish a cyber security subsidiary within his bank. Federal Reserve officials in Chicago had originally suggested they approved of the Muncie-based Mutual First Financial unit offering those services to its customers, then the regulators suddenly changed their minds.

“We reviewed the regulations and believed we should be able to do this, and when they said we could, we started down that road,” Cook told WTHR. “Later they told us they weren’t sure we should be doing this, so we asked what we could do next, and they basically said there’s nothing you can do. I didn’t take that for an answer, so that’s the time I gathered my documentation and I met with [elected officials] to present the facts to see if -- on our behalf -- they’d talk to someone at the Federal Reserve. That seemed like our only outlet at that point.”

Cook said he found a receptive audience in Messer’s Washington office on March 8 as he described the hurdles he faced with federal banking regulators. He followed up a few days later with a letter outlining his experience with the Federal Reserve. Then on March 17, Messer took action. He faxed a letter to Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen to advocate for his constituent. It’s exactly what Cook had hoped for.

“I didn’t have a contact at the Federal Reserve in Washington, so I wanted them to forward the information I had by whatever means they determined most effective,” said Cook. “I wanted them to get the bank in front of the Federal Reserve to find if we could move forward.”

The strategy seemed to work. In June, just a few months after receiving help from Messer, Mutual First received permission from the Federal Reserve to offer security control audit services.

Soon thereafter, a D.C.-based watchdog group flagged Messer’s intervention as suspicious. The organization says right after Messer wrote a letter on behalf of Cook and his bank, the congressman accepted a campaign contribution from the same man who sought his help.

The complaint

This week, the Office of Congressional Ethics received a formal ethics complaint, requesting an investigation into a $500 donation that Cook made to Messer’s campaign committee. The donation was made on March 31 – just two weeks after Messer wrote his letter to the Federal Reserve – and it was filed by watchdog group American Oversight.

“This contribution is very suspicious and merits further inquiry,” said American Oversight senior advisor Melanie Sloan, who wrote the complaint. “Members of Congress may not accept campaign contributions in response to their official actions, and that's really what this looks like. It looks like the bank appreciated Congressman Messer's efforts on its behalf, and so he was given a campaign contribution to thank him. That’s considered pay-to-play and that’s not allowed.”

The complaint alleges the contribution is a potential violation of a federal illegal gratuity statute, which prohibits a public official from seeking or receiving anything of value for an official action taken by the official. House ethics rules prohibit the same activity.

Sloan says the political donation is also unusual because, according to a database of federal campaign contributions, the $500 contribution to Messer represents the first donation Cook has made to a federal lawmaker in nearly a decade.

“The fact that Congressman Messer took this action and less than two weeks later, Mr. Cook – who is not in the habit of making campaign contributions to lawmakers and had no prior campaign contributions to Mr. Messer – suddenly makes this campaign contribution, that’s why it looks related,” she said. “The timing suggests it was not a coincidence.”

American Oversight also alleges that Messer’s letter to the Federal Reserve oversteps House ethics guidelines by attempting to exert improper influence over a federal agency that is supposed to remain independent, undeterred in its decision making by Congressional inquiries.

Simply bad timing?

Cook says the timing of his $500 donation – just two weeks after the Congressman wrote a letter on his behalf to the Federal Reserve – actually was a coincidence and not related to the Federal Reserve letter in any way. He says the donation was made when he purchased two $250 tickets to attend a political fundraiser for Messer hosted by one of his neighbors.

“Yes, I made a donation to Rep. Messer’s campaign to attend a meet-and-greet with the Congressman. My wife and I both attended with about 20 or 30 other people at a friend’s house,” Cook explained to 13 Investigates. “It was bad timing, it appears, from the perception of this. But those two situations did not equal the reason for the contribution. I would have gone to the fundraiser either way because it wasn’t about the letter. The letter had nothing to do with me going or not going. I support Luke and support what he’s done for the sixth district.”

Cook said he does make an annual contribution to a political action committee that represents the banking industry, but stopped making direct donations to lawmakers years ago after a bad experience involving partisan politics. He said he changed his mind and made a donation to Messer earlier this year because of a desire to be more politically active and to help advocate for non-profit organizations that are important to him.

Asked about the ethics complaint filed against Messer, Cook says the experience has left him confused and disillusioned.

“At what point can you and can you not donate to a campaign?” he asked. “It’s disturbing, and I hate being in the middle of this. Makes me re-think my decision to get involved again in the process.”

Cook pointed out he met with both Messer and Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly during his March trip to Washington, and both lawmakers contacted the Federal Reserve on his behalf. “I think the senator may have been even more helpful than Congressman Messer,” said Cook. “They both looked at what I presented and thought it made a lot of sense.” A registered Republican who says he usually votes for GOP candidates, Cook has not made a campaign contribution to Donnelly, the Democratic senator who Messer hopes to unseat in next year’s general election.

Congressman’s campaign fires back

WTHR asked to meet with Rep. Messer to discuss the ethics allegation. His office referred 13 Investigates to Robert Vane, who serves as a spokesman for Messer’s senate campaign.

“Nothing that anyone did was improper or inappropriate,” Vane told Eyewitness News. “The complaint is really basically equal parts ridiculous and equal parts ludicrous.”

Vane said Messer has not violated any Congressional rules because neither the lawmaker nor his staff solicited the political contribution from Cook. He lashed out at American Oversight, calling the organization an ulta-liberal attack group that files ethics complaints against Republican political foes that it fears. Vane called the ethics complaint filed this week against Messer “frivolous and silly,” and he said the “small” contribution by Cook was not intended as a thank you, but rather as an opportunity to attend a neighborhood fundraiser.

“Five hundred dollars in the grand scheme of a political campaign like the coming senate race is quite simply not a lot of money. It just isn't” said Vane, who operates a public relations firm specializing in crisis management. “There's not a single thing about it that I find inappropriate. None. Zero.”

American Oversight disagreed with the characterizations, pointing out that its staff has filed ethics complaints against both Democrats and Republicans and that those complaints do not simply focus on the size of donations.

“It's not a question of the amount that's involved. It's the action that's involved,” said Sloan. “If you look at what actually happened and what Mr. Messer’s office did, I think the Office of Congressional Ethics will be interest in this because of the timing and the amount of assistance Congressman Messer was seeking for the bank, and as a result, we're asking them to investigate and to find out more.”

“An embarrassment”

Murphy, director of the University of Indianapolis Center for Ethics, believes the case does raise important questions.

“I think this raises concerns about Rep. Messer's conduct,” Murphy said. “Two weeks after is quite recent, so it's very natural to ask the question: Why is he giving the money at that time? It could be pure coincidence, having nothing to do with the kind acts Rep. Messer did for him, but we have no compelling reason to think it’s a pure coincidence. And even if it were purely coincidence, it doesn't look good.”

He said Messer’s acceptance of the $500 donation is problematic, even if it does not violate any rules.

“The concern that people are going to have about the case is whether there was some type of understanding -- perhaps even unspoken -- between Rep. Messer and Mr. Cook that if he wrote the letter on behalf of Mutual Bank to the Federal Reserve, that there would be a favor in return. We have no evidence that took place, but on the other hand we don’t have any evidence that did not take place, so that lack of evidence is going to erode trust and confidence in what Rep. Messer is doing. We need to be reassured that that type of thing did not happen, and citizens are not required to accept things on blind faith.”

Paul Helmke, director of the Indiana University Civic Leaders Center, expressed less concern over the political donation. He said some of the biggest warning signs of pay-to-play donations – very large contributions that come from outside contributors who do not live in a lawmaker’s district – are not present in the current allegation against Messer.

“This is not pay-to-play. This is more of an embarrassment,” he told WTHR. “This amount is smaller than you would normally hear about in a pay-to-play situation. While $500 to $1000 is a lot for most people, when it comes to contributions, that doesn’t get you very far. Often times, candidates are not even aware of who's giving to them. And often times, when talking about pay-to-play, the money comes first, then the action comes second. That would look more suspicious to me.”

Helmke did agree with American Oversight in expressing concern about the Congressman’s appeal to the Federal Reserve on Cook’s behalf.

“The letter seems over the top for what you'd usually see in a letter like this. It's so far beyond what you'd expect, it raises the question: who really wrote the letter? Asking for or even suggesting reimbursement to the bank by the Fed steps over the line. That’s not a good way to handle communications with an independent agency, and the Fed is meant to be outside politics.”

While Messer’s letter to the Federal Reserve takes a more aggressive tone, Donnelly’s office sent the Federal Reserve a much more subdued e-mail on behalf of the bank executive. It included a letter from Cook and asked a Fed reserve liaison to forward the letter to the appropriate staff member within the agency for review.

The Office of Congressional Ethics will now consider whether to conduct an investigation into Messer’s letter and the campaign contribution he accepted from Cook. A staff member told WTHR internal policy prohibits the congressional ethics office from commenting on pending matters.