Atrios reported this late last week, but it's just now getting into the media. rep. Joe Barton is being criticized for using his Congressional privilege of sending free mail (called "franking") to people who aren't yet his constituents.
Morris Meyer, an Arlington software engineer, said Tuesday that the House Franking Commission has assigned an attorney to look into whether Barton, R-Ennis, improperly sent newsletters to constituents in the newly drawn 6th Congressional District. A commission spokesman said she could not comment this morning.
Franking privileges allow government officials to send informational or polling materials to constituents using public money rather than paying for it out of their own pocket.
Under franking rules, members of Congress cannot send mass mailings to recipients outside their current district, except in certain instances.
“As a 20-year congressman, Barton knows the rules pertaining to franking privileges,” Meyer said. “He has used this to send campaign literature in the guise of an official government newsletter at the taxpayers’ expense to potential voters in areas that he does not presently represent.”
In a statement released Tuesday, Barton blamed the error on Dallas-based Valentine Direct Marketing, which produced and distributed the material.
“I have sent out an annual official newsletter for more than 10 years and have always insisted on keeping strictly within the guidelines … for use of official mailing funds,” Barton said. “The newsletter’s only intention is, was, and will always be, to inform current 6th District constituents of legislative issues facing Congress.
“The occurrence was an unfortunate mistake by the printer.”
In a letter faxed to Barton’s Washington office Tuesday, Ed Valentine of Valentine Direct apologized “for our failure to properly heed your staff’s instructions on the Summer 2004 Newsletter piece we produced and distributed on behalf of your office.
“Due to some internal confusion as a result of recent redistricting, we mistakenly mailed Summer Newsletter pieces to the ‘new’ congressional district rather than following the explicit instruction to mail congressional pieces only to the ‘current’ district.”
The letter also said that company officials were working to determine how many newsletters were sent to recipients in the new district.
Franking rules place the responsibility for ensuring correct use of the privilege to the member, even if a staffer of the member makes the wrong decision on using the privilege.
“To help avoid these violations of the franking law, with all their resultant possible penalties and reflections on the effective administration of his office, a member should reasonably ensure that his staff knows what kinds of mail are frankable …,” the rules read, in part. “Members should encourage their staff, especially in the case of all mass mailings, to consult with and seek the advice of the (Franking) Commission to the greatest extent possible.”