The Congresswoman and the Taxpayer-funded TV Ads
June 30, 2022 · 1:19 PM EDT
“I’m Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, Democrat for Congress, and I approve this message.”
In 2021, it was a difficult refrain to escape in South Florida; Cherfilus-McCormick’s advertisements, each ending in that disclosure, aired hundreds of times on TV.
But three commercials that aired earlier this month in South Florida ended with slightly different disclaimer: “Paid for with official funds from the office of Congresswoman Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick.”
Even though it’s rare, members of Congress are allowed to use official funds for TV ads, as long as they cover official business and steer clear of campaign content. But Cherfilus-McCormick, a new representative from Florida’s 20th District, appears to be blurring those lines.
In many ways, Cherfilus-McCormick’s ads resemble the hundreds of ads that air in races across the country every year. There’s upbeat music, b-roll of smiling families, and a member of Congress explaining what she’s accomplished while in office.
But these aren’t actually campaign ads. They’re commercials produced and paid for by Cherfilus-McCormick’s taxpayer-funded congressional office, not her campaign committee.
A review of House ethics rules suggests Cherfilus-McCormick is operating in a significant gray area when it comes to how members can and cannot spend official funds. And her past financial filings show that it’s not the first time the congresswoman has come under scrutiny for her use of taxpayer dollars while seeking office.
Cherfilus-McCormick, 43, arrived on Capitol Hill just five months ago after winning a special election to fill out the remainder of the late Rep. Alcee Hastings’ term.
Cherfilus-McCormick had previously unsuccessfully challenged Hastings in the all-important Democratic primary in 2018 and 2020. In South Florida’s deeply Democratic 20th District, the general election is more of a formality.
In the special primary following Hastings’ death, which featured 11 candidates including several current and former officeholders, Cherfilus-McCormick squeaked out an excruciatingly close victory — just 5 votes — over Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness. Overall, she took 23.8 percent of the vote.
The previously little-known Cherfilus-McCormick’s victory was a minor upset. Holness, Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief, and state Sen. Perry Thurston were considered the initial frontrunners. But her prolific spending on TV ads — at least $1.5 million in an otherwise sleepy race that saw just 16 percent turnout — was enough to secure the win.
This year, Cherfilus-McCormick faces two primary challengers: Holness and state Rep. Anika Omphroy.
Redistricting left the seat largely unchanged, though Broward County, where Holness and Omphroy, but not Cherfilus-McCormick, are from, makes up even more of the district than it did before.
The three advertisements from Cherfilus-McCormick’s office are notable because members rarely spend official dollars on TV ads (radio is much more common), but also because of how closely they resemble traditional campaign advertising.
Each ad begins and ends the same way, with a smiling Cherfilus-McCormick in front of a green screen background, introducing herself (“Hi, I’m your congresswoman, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick”). She closes out each ad by repeating, “I’m your congresswoman, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, and it is my honor to serve the community that I love.”
While one ad makes mention of two specific pieces of legislation — the Peoples Prosperity Plan (a proposal for Universal Basic Income that Cherfilus-McCormick made central to her campaign) and a gas tax bill — the spots are short on specifics.
“I’ve been working to implement solutions to our real world problems,” she says in one. “As your representative in Congress, I’m currently working with our president and Nancy Pelosi to bring resources to our district,” she says in another.
As images of gas pumps, pill bottles, and eviction notices flash by, Cherfilus-McCormick says she’s also working to lower the cost of groceries, fuel, and medication. She declares that “help is on the way,” over clips showing seniors smiling and families playing, to the tune of generic uplifting music.
To the untrained eye, the ads resemble campaign commercials. But they differ from traditional campaign ads in a few important places.
There’s no overt electioneering: no asking voters to cast their ballots for Cherfilus-McCormick, no mention of her opponents, no reminder of when the election takes place.
And almost every frame includes the words “Congresswoman Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick” and the seal of the House of Representatives, an image prohibited in traditional campaign ads.
What are “Official Funds”?
Every congressional office is funded by what is known as a “Members’ Representational Allowance”: a single, yearly allowance to each office used to cover all expenses, from staff salaries to office supplies to transportation.
MRAs vary slightly depending on the particulars of the district a member represents. According to a 2022 report from the Congressional Research Service, the average MRA for 2021 was about $1.5 million. The vast majority of an MRA — on average, 74 percent — covered personnel costs. Just 2 percent on average went toward franking (communicating to constituents).
Members do not always spend their entire allowance. In fact, some members brag about returning taxpayer money.
In the 2020 calendar year, the last year that Hastings served a full term, his office reported spending about $1.3 million. In the 2021 calendar year, Hastings’ office reported spending a similar amount (if a member dies, the House Clerk operates the office). Cherfilus-McCormick assumed office on January 18, and her office had spent $202,000 by March 31.
According to a review of contracts filed with the Federal Communications Commission, Cherfilus-McCormick’s office initially reserved $187,000 worth of TV advertising in the Miami and West Palm Beach media markets for the month of June, which would have been roughly 14 percent of her office’s yearly allowance.
The office later canceled some of those buys, ultimately running roughly $90,000 worth of advertisements on four stations, according to a review of public filings, and analysis by data company Kantar/CMAG. That comes out to about 7 percent of her office’s yearly allowance.
A spokeswoman for Cherfilus-McCormick’s office said in a June 23 email that the office had paid $30,672 “to date” for the ads, but did not respond to follow up questions about the contracts or data from Kantar.
A bevy of House rules governs how members can spend their MRAs, and makes clear that in order to qualify for MRA spending, any mass communications must steer well clear of political campaigning.
According to the manual published by the House Ethics Committee, official House resources “may not be used for campaign or political purposes” (emphasis original), a rule designed to “reflect ‘the basic principle that government funds should not be spent to help incumbents gain reelection.’”
The Members' Congressional Handbook, published by the House Committee on Administration, specifies that MRAs “may not pay for campaign expenses.” Instead, MRAs can cover the cost of “unsolicited communication of substantially identical content to 500 or more persons,” including television advertising. Importantly, the handbook restricts those communications to content that relates “to official and representational duties to the district.”
The House Communications Standards Commission also states that “all content in official communications must be related to official business,” defined as “matters which relate directly or indirectly to: the legislative process, congressional functions generally, constituent services, the day-to-day operations of Congress, Federal issues of public concern, actions taken as a representative of the district from which the Member is elected, requests for public opinion of constituents regarding policy issues, and the facilitation of interaction between constituents and the Federal government.”
House offices must receive an advisory opinion from the Communications Standards Commission approving all unsolicited mass communications.
The Communications Standards Commission reiterates that “Official communications should not be used for political or personal business,” prohibiting “campaign content or electioneering” and “content laudatory of a Member on a personal or political basis.”
And unsolicited mass communications are prohibited in the 60 days prior to a member standing for election (lowered from 90 days by a 2020 law). In Cherfilus-McCormick’s case, that means a blackout period beginning on June 24 ahead of her August 23 primary. All of Cherfilus-McCormick’s ads stopped airing on June 22.
Records indicate that Cherfilus-McCormick did seek out an advisory opinion on at least one of the three commercials she paid for with official funds this year.
A staff advisory opinion issued by the House Communications Standards Commission, dated June 2, deemed at least one of Cherfilus-McCormick’s advertisements — in which she says she is working to reduce the cost of grocery bills, gas, and medication — as “frankable” under federal law that allows distribution of communications “regarding programs, decisions, and other related matters of public concern or public service, including any matter relating to actions of a past or current Congress.”
Cherfilus-McCormick’s office said in a statement that the commission approved all three advertisements. But a search of the commission’s database does not turn up advisory opinions on the two other advertisements. A spokesman for the Commission told Inside Elections that there were no other publicly available advisory opinions relating to the office’s advertisements.
The spokesman could not confirm whether Cherfilus-McCormick’s office had requested advisory opinions on the two other advertisements, but said that in order for the opinions to appear in the database, the requesting office has to certify the ad has aired. Data from analytics company Kantar/CMAG indicates all three ads ran at least once, and that all three ads ran a combined 153 times in June.
The Public File
In the process of placing the mass communications, Cherfilus-McCormick identifies herself, in contracts and filings with several TV stations, as a political candidate purchasing political advertising.
When contracting with six stations (WFOR, WPLG, and WTVJ in Miami, and WPBF, WPEC, and WPTV in West Palm Beach), Cherfilus-McCormick’s office submitted a “Candidate Advertisement Agreement Form,” a standard form used by radio and TV stations across the country as “a model agreement for the sale of political broadcast advertising time.”
In the form, a box is checked identifying Cherfilus-McCormick as a “federal candidate” seeking election in the August 23 primary for Florida’s 20th District.
In each form’s signature box, the printed name reads “Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, though the signature below it appears to read: “Mgm for SCM.”
Ad buyers also have the option to use an “Issue (Non-candidate) agreement,” an alternate form, which, like the one Cherfilus-McCormick filed, is produced by the National Association of Broadcasters.
An Issue (Non-candidate agreement) form does not require buyers to represent themselves as candidates actively seeking office. Other offices that have recently used official funds to purchase TV or radio ad time have either used the non-candidate agreement or completed the candidate agreement in a way that makes clear the ad is not for campaign purposes.
A spokeswoman for Cherfilus-McCormick’s office declined to answer questions on the choice to use forms that identified her as a candidate instead of using the non-candidate form.
Four of the six contracts with the TV stations listed Cherfilus-McCormick’s Washington, DC House office as the buyer’s address. But the contract with WTVJ lists a Florida address for one of Cherfilus-McCormick’s companies, Trinity Health Services. And the contract with WPTV lists the address of the building that houses the Cherfilus-McCormick congressional campaign.
Cherfilus-McCormick’s office also appears to have relied on a campaign adviser, rather than an official staff member, to execute the buys.
Goodrich is not on Cherfilus-McCormick’s official staff, he told Inside Elections, and he is not listed on Legistorm, a site that tracks congressional staffing.
He has, however, played a significant role in Cherfilus-McCormick’s campaign, and recently gave an interview with a political phones/texting company explaining the campaign’s strategy in detail. Goodrich is also listed as the point of contact for several ad buys made by the Cherfilus-McCormick congressional campaign in 2021.
That a campaign consultant, rather than a staff member in Cherfilus-McCormick’s official House office, was the point of contact for the purchase of at least half of the initial ad buy further blurs the line between official and political communications.
Goodrich said in an interview that the forms — independently completed by different employees at three competing TV stations — were incorrect, and blamed the advertising salespeople for the errors. But he later acknowledged that he had “conversations with all of those people” about how much ads for the congresswoman or her campaign would cost.
Cherfilus-McCormick’s official office declined to answer questions about Goodrich or his role in the ad-buying process. After Inside Elections inquired with the office about why Goodrich’s name appeared on the documents, at least one station filed amended forms with the FCC, replacing Goodrich’s name with Shauna Pierre, a spokeswoman in Cherfilus-McCormick’s House office. Goodrich told Inside Elections the office requested the change following the June 23 inquiry. The station’s director of sales did not respond to multiple emails.
Furthermore, during the special election, Cherfilus-McCormick may have had an unusual arrangement with Goodrich, whose name does not appear in her campaign’s FEC filings.
On March 12, 2021, Cherfilus-McCormick incorporated a consulting firm at the state level, SCM Consulting Group, which paid a political action committee registered in Florida $261,000 in 30 installments beginning May 3, 2021, according to state campaign finance disclosures. That PAC, Leadership in Action, has paid Goodrich $152,000 since the beginning of 2021, including $142,000 after her contributions to the PAC began.
A local political blogger, Tom Lauder, first reported the transactions last year on his blog, Red Broward. Lauder wrote that Cherfilus-McCormick acknowledged Goodrich as one of her consultants but claimed the donations to Leadership in Action were for “medical services canvassing” that Goodrich provided, and did not give further information.
Goodrich stated in a phone interview with Inside Elections that he was a volunteer for the campaign.
The Cherfilus-McCormick campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Goodrich’s role and compensation.
Members using MRA funds to advertise on TV isn’t unprecedented, but it is unusual.
A neighboring South Florida congresswoman has also been using her official office funds to air television advertisements: Frederica Wilson, who represents Florida’s 24th District, spent $81,910 on Miami broadcast and cable ads in June.
But Wilson, who unlike Cherfilus-McCormick does not face a competitive primary this summer, did several things differently along the way.
Wilson’s commercials, each one-minute long rather than 30 seconds, more resemble PSAs than campaign ads. One lists specific projects in the district funded by last year’s infrastructure bill, of which Wilson was one of five lead sponsors. In another, most of the run time is devoted to listing individual South Florida colleges and the amount of money they received from the government last year. The third advertises after-school programs for students and a new museum of Bahamian culture.
Unlike Cherfilus-McCormick’s commercials, which heavily feature the congresswoman and include her name and the House seal throughout, Wilson herself never appears speaking directly to the camera, and images of her only briefly appear.
Wilson’s office used issue (non-candidate) agreement forms when placing the ads, as opposed to the Candidate Advertisement Agreement Form used by Cherfilus-McCormick.
The point of contact for all of Wilson’s reservations is her House office’s communications director.
What, then, is the purpose of diverting money from an already limited pool meant for staff salaries, equipment, and other daily expenses associated with running a congressional office?
According to a statement from Pierre, the spokeswoman for Cherfilus-McCormick’s office, the commercials were intended to inform “constituents of their new representative and current legislation we’re working on in Congress to alleviate the housing and inflation issues.”
Pierre also indicated that the commercials were designed to raise Cherfilus-McCormick’s name identification in the district. “Our district went 9 months without congressional representation,” Pierre said in the statement. “As a result many of our constituents were not aware that the seat had been filled. Many people did not know what was going on in Congress or who to contact if they needed help.”
That Cherfilus-McCormick was using official funds to raise her name ID in the months leading up to the election stands in contrast to her campaign strategy ahead of the special election, when she used personal funds to introduce herself to voters.
In that race, Cherfilus-McCormick loaned her campaign $6 million, and spent $2.9 million, including $1.7 million on TV ads. (She also repaid $2 million of the loans back to herself.)
And unlike in the 2021 special election, when Cherfilus-McCormick began blanketing the airwaves five months ahead of Election Day, her campaign has yet to air any ads ahead of the August 23 primary.
Her campaign reported $1.7 million in the bank on March 31, and Cherfilus-McCormick did loan her campaign an additional $600,000 to her campaign over the first three months of the year.
But the extent of Cherfilus-McCormick’s personal wealth remains unclear. She has yet to file her first financial disclosure as a House member, and likely will not do so until 10 days before the primary election.
In Cherfilus-McCormick’s sole financial disclosure, from after the 2021 special election primary (she did not make required filings in her 2018 or 2020 races), she reported assets of between $1.4 million and $5.9 million, including a savings account with between $1 million-5 million. But she also reported nearly $6.4 million in income in 2021, a significant increase over the $86,000 in income she reported earning 2020 (financial disclosures ask for two years of income).
Cherfilus-McCormick’s opponents have called attention to nearly $23 million in government contracts her company, Trinity Health Services, was allocated in 2021 for vaccine outreach efforts. The money, originally from the federal government, was administered by the state. Records indicate that just over $8 million of those contracts has been paid out thus far. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel recently reported that “records don’t show how much it cost Trinity to fulfill its obligations under the contracts, and how much was profit for the family-owned company.”
Whatever the reason Cherfilus-McCormick elected to use official resources rather than campaign money to reintroduce herself to the district, communication from the House projects an imprimatur of officialness that typical campaign ads do not.
Campaign ads cannot use the official Seal of the House of Representatives, but the seal abounds in Cherfilus-McCormick’s ads. Campaign ads cannot use clearly identified C-SPAN footage, but Cherfilus-McCormick makes significant use of those clips, including one in which she presides from the House Speaker’s rostrum.
It’s easy to forget in those images that she’s a brand-new member who replaced a 28-year incumbent and dean of Florida’s House delegation, now facing a competitive primary of her own.