Kirk's campaign defends putting caregiver on payroll

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk's campaign manager said Wednesday the Highland Park Republican did things "by the book" when he gave a campaign job to a personal caregiver hired to assist him following a 2012 stroke.

Kirk's campaign paid the live-in caregiver - who had no campaign experience - more than $43,000 between August 2013 and the end of 2014, The Chicago Tribune reported. The newspaper also reported caregiver Mervyn Fombe-Abiko was twice arrested on theft and fraud charges.

Kirk is seeking re-election in what's expected to be one of the most competitive 2016 races, as Democrats see the seat in President Barack Obama's home state as key to their attempt to win back control of the U.S. Senate.

Paul Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan Washington-based organization that advocates for campaign finance reform, said the arrangement raised questions about whether Kirk used political donations for personal expenses in violation of federal rules.

"If the expense existed irrespective of whether Sen. Kirk was a candidate or officeholder, then he cannot pay for it with campaign funds," Ryan said. "It seems to me that Sen. Kirk had these home care expenses irrespective of his candidacy."

Kirk's campaign said the senator personally paid Fombe-Abiko for caregiver services - a total of $29,177 over a 16-month period beginning in September 2013. Those duties varied depending on Kirk's schedule but typically involved a few hours in the morning and evening.

They say Fombe-Abiko was paid separately by the campaign for entry-level work such as data entry, driving Kirk to political events and stuffing envelopes.

Campaign manager Kevin Artl says the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics approved the arrangement.

In a letter issued to Kirk's attorneys in 2013 and provided to The Associated Press, the committee's chief counsel and staff director says "there appears to be no Senate Rule that would prohibit the type of employment arrangement proposed" by Kirk and his campaign. He also cautions Kirk to carefully monitor the caregiver's time and be sure he's compensated from the appropriate account.

"Documentation clearly and explicitly outlined a dual employment arrangement, approved by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics, that allowed Sen. Kirk to pay for his caregiver with his own personal funds while paying for his campaign work with campaign funds," Artl said. "What is certain is that Sen. Kirk did everything by the book in a clear and transparent manner."

Ryan said Kirk should have consulted the FEC, not the Senate ethics committee, regarding campaign spending. Kirk's campaign said it consulted a former FEC director who said the situation was proper.

Fombe-Abiko was arrested in October 2013 on charges of receiving stolen goods after police said he pawned a camera he bought online but never paid for.

Kirk's campaign said he was "saddened" to learn of the criminal activity but hoped Fombe-Abiko would "begin making the right choices."

The campaign said Fombe-Abiko and Kirk "mutually parted ways" at the end of 2014. It was around that time that Fombe-Abiko was arrested at mall in northern Virginia on allegations he used stolen gift cards to make purchases.

Fombe-Abiko got probation and a suspended jail sentence for the 2013 charges. The 2014 case is still working its way through court.

The first-term senator and former congressman has taken heat in recent weeks for a series of gaffes. They prompted a top GOP donor to briefly suggest Kirk should abandon his bid, though Republicans - including multimillionaire Gov. Bruce Rauner - quickly rallied around him.

Mervyn Fombe-Abiko
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