Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA) is one politician who prefers the company of his wife.
The Daily Beast has found the Los Angeles-area congressman has pumped close to $500,000 from his campaign into his spouse’s business—just one of his fundraising habits that have angered ethics advocates. Neither Cardenas nor his wife, whose background is in the “wellness” sector, responded to repeated requests from The Daily Beast for comment.
Federal Election Commission records show that the Cardenas campaign routinely remits $4,400 to Essence Marketing at the start of every month, payments which the filings have described as “Consultant—Communications” since the beginning of 2017. Interspersed with these regular outlays are larger, sporadic expenditures from Cardenas’ personal political action committee marked “Communications Consulting Services,” as well as smaller emoluments designated “Reimbursement” or “Event Supplies.”
The $4,400 monthly remunerations are a substantial uptick from the $1,650 Essence charged the campaign for “Social Media” in the period between 2012, when Cardenas first ran for his seat, and 2015. The payments became erratic in 2016, escalating suddenly to $3,300 for the same “Social Media” functions and even reaching $4,600, before settling into the new $4,400 pattern for “Communications” the following January.
These payments first came to the attention of a local Los Angeles paper after the 2014 election cycle, when they totaled $40,000. Eight years later, the compensation Essence has received from Cardenas’s committees amounts to more than 10 times that—a whopping $424,183.62.
There are no laws barring candidates for public office from hiring companies belonging to themselves or a family member, so long as the charges are at market rate. However, good government groups have long discouraged the practice on ethics grounds.
“It raises red flags whenever you see a candidate paying their family members,” said Adam Rappaport, general counsel to the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Rep. Cardenas’ decision to use his wife’s consulting firm for his campaign blurs the line between what is allowed and what is right.”
It is unclear whether Essence received market-value payments for its services, since it is unclear exactly what services it provides and how those services changed as its compensation increased. Norma Cardenas’s LinkedIn page describes her as an “emotional wellness facilitator” with experience as a “life coach.”
The only education and certifications the page notes are in hypnotherapy and primordial sound meditation.
Also unclear is what other entities and organizations are paying the congressman’s spouse. Essence’s YouTube page hosts just six videos, three of them are Cardenas campaign ads, but one is a promotion for a cleaning products company featuring Ms. Cardenas herself. The remainder consist of a spot promoting an urban garden and ambient meditation music.
Similarly obscure, and disturbing to anti-corruption activists, is another Cardenas fundraising vehicle: his legal defense fund, formed to cover attorney fees he accrued battling sexual molestation allegations last decade. The accuser dropped her claims in 2019 after her attorney withdrew from the case, citing professional ethics, and amid reports of unethical behavior by her father. But the congressman continued to amass cash in the trust afterward.
Craig Holman, lobbyist for the consumer rights group Public Citizen, lamented that the quarterly reports that legal defense funds must file are not available online. He also complained of the Cardenas fund’s receipt of the maximum $5,000 donation from the Political Action Committee (PAC) of a hospital network that also lobbies Congress.
A direct contribution from the health care provider would have been illegal under House guidelines—but making the donation through a PAC represents a “big loophole.”
“That’s exactly the type of activity that source prohibition is trying to stop,” Holman said. “It’s just a way of getting around the ban of lobbying contributions.”