It's time to break the news.The Messenger's slogan

Lawmakers Sent Millions In Earmarks To Their Spouses’ Employers Despite Reforms

Sweeping reforms to the Congressional earmarks process failed to prevent Congress members from sponsoring provisions for organizations where their spouses work


When Democrats in 2021 announced the return of congressional earmarks after a 10-year hiatus, lawmakers pledged that the previously scandal-plagued spending program would be different.

“Our bipartisan reforms will produce a small number of projects with strong community support, a transparent process where no member’s family can benefit and where projects are audited to ensure money was spent as planned,” then-House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut said at the time.

Despite that promise, at least four members of Congress have sponsored millions in federal spending projects for organizations that employ their spouses over the last two years, a review by The Messenger encompassing more than 1,000 pages of congressional appropriations records has found. They include Reps. Pete Aguilar, Jason Crow, Mike Thompson and Sen. Tim Kaine.

The findings come from an analysis by The Messenger comparing congressional records that identify sponsors of specific earmarks with the personal financial disclosure forms filed by the 535 members of Congress. The financial disclosure forms require lawmakers to identify any sources of earned income for themselves and their spouses.

Earmarks are provisions that members of the House and Senate write into law directing federal funds to specific local projects of all sizes in their states and districts. 

Proponents of earmarks argue that the system puts a small bit of the federal government’s spending power into the hands of elected officials who know their communities best. In some cases, lawmakers send federal cash to organizations – including nonprofits and public and private universities – that they know extremely well.

Congress had eliminated earmarks in 2011 amid a wave of controversies, ranging from the approval of earmarks for the $300 million-plus “Bridge to Nowhere” in rural Alaska to the involvement of several top GOP lawmakers in the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff

‘It can be problematic’

“I’ve got a great affinity for this hospital,” Thompson, D-Calif., said when he delivered a giant ceremonial check for $1.8 million to Adventist Health St. Helena last year. “It’s where I was born and it’s where I left my tonsils.”

Thompson secured the funding for water improvements at the 151-bed facility damaged by a wildfire in California’s Napa Valley. As part of the process to secure the funds, he signed a letter certifying that neither he nor his immediate family has a financial interest in the project.

Thompson spokesman Jack Stelzner said in a statement that Thompson’s wife is a nurse at the hospital, and “neither her pay nor her position have been or will be impacted” by the funding.

“[W]e sought guidance from House Ethics Committee regarding this earmark request,” he said. “The Ethics Committee informed us that the decision to support the project must be made on the project’s merits, which is how we evaluated the project.”

While the hospital is the recipient of the funding, Stelzner said the water storage project benefits an additional 660 residents and businesses not associated with the hospital and can be used to fight fires.

Congressional ethics rules prohibit U.S. lawmakers from sponsoring earmarks in which they or their spouse has a financial interest. But congressional ethics authorities have interpreted those rules in such a way that earmarks like the one Thompson secured are permissible. 

Despite the efforts to institute new safeguards, the return of earmarks still comes with political and ethical risks for lawmakers, said Joshua Sewell, senior policy analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“While lawmakers want to help projects in their district or state, they need to avoid the appearance of self-dealing,” Sewell said, discussing the topic generally and not any specific project. “If a spouse is employed by the entity receiving the earmark, it can be problematic." 

‘No financial interest’

Aguilar, D-Calif., was the sole sponsor of $750,000 awarded in the 2023 fiscal year to the University of Redlands, his alma mater, for a “University Village Development Project.”

Rep. Pete Aguilar (left) poses with a ceremonial check and local officials to announce $750,000 for infrastructure improvements at the University of Redlands in California. Photo by Rep. Aguilar's office. (

“The funding would be used to create a sustainable, multimodal, transit-oriented, and mixed-use infrastructure for the Redlands community,” Aguilar said in a letter. “I certify that neither I, nor my immediate family has any financial interest in this project.” Aguilar’s wife works as an operations support director in student financial services at the University of Redlands, a private nonprofit university, according to the university’s website.

In response to questions from The Messenger, Aguilar’s office provided an April 28, 2022, letter from the House Ethics Committee notifying the congressman that he "may certify no financial interest" for the project. 

"You stated your spouse’s employment and salary would not be impacted by the University Village project,” the letter states. “Recent news articles appear to support that assertion, as revenue generated by the University Village project is intended to be an additional, non-tuition revenue stream for the University.”

It continues: “Based on the information you provided, it appears that any benefit to the University of Redlands would benefit the University as a whole, and would not have a direct or foreseeable effect on your or your immediate family’s pecuniary interests. Rather, your spouse’s financial interest in the funding request for the University Village project is remote, or speculative, in nature.”

The earmark appropriations process has no safeguards other than the requirement that members state in writing that neither they, nor their family members, have any financial interest in the projects they are sponsoring. 

Crow, D-Colo., sponsored multiple projects for a medical campus in the University of Colorado system, where his former wife works as a professor. They were married at the time of Crow's earmark requests.

“This funding was requested following all guidance to benefit one of the largest medical campuses in the Rocky Mountain region,” said Crow spokesperson Grace Wright. “Colorado is fortunate to have several world-class, independent public universities. Congressman Crow will always fight for Colorado and work to provide resources that benefit the community.”

Under House ethics rules, a financial interest would exist in an earmark “when it would be reasonable to conclude that the provision would have a direct and foreseeable effect on the pecuniary interests of the Member or the Member‘s spouse,” according to the House Ethics Manual. Such a financial interest may “derive from a salary, indebtedness, job offer, or other similar interest.”

A six-page memo providing earmarks-related ethics guidance that was delivered to lawmakers in 2021 when Democrats controlled all the levers of power on Capitol Hill restates the guidance in the House Ethics Manual before outlining several hypothetical scenarios in question-and-answer format.

The memo poses the question: “Do I have a financial interest in a funding request for a public university’s medical research study where my spouse is chair of the English department?” The answer: “Your spouse’s compensation will not be affected by the funding request, nor will your spouse receive any other financial gain or benefit from the funding request. Therefore, there is no financial interest.”

That scenario closely matches Crow’s earmarks for the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus. His former wife, Deserai Anderson Crow, is a professor in the University of Colorado-Denver's school of public affairs.

'In no way influenced'

At least two earmarks benefiting the employer of a lawmaker’s spouse originated in the Senate.

Kaine successfully sponsored two earmarks totaling nearly $3.5 million in 2022 and 2023 for George Mason University, where his wife, former Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton, was interim president from 2019-20. She is currently a professor in GMU’s Schar School of Policy and Government and its College of Education and Human Development.

The earmarks “are in no way influenced by Secretary Holton,” a Kaine spokesperson said in a statement to The Messenger. 

The earmarks included $1.48 million in 2022 for a project titled “Coalition to Enhance the Capacity of Policing Mental Health Problems in Virginia” and $1.95 million in 2023 “to recruit and train college students for tutoring of elementary and secondary school students,” co-sponsored with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. In a press release announcing the 2022 funding, GMU acknowledged the earmark “resulted from the efforts” of the state’s two senators. 

“Secretary Holton has no involvement in the CDS process, and no involvement in the George Mason CDS requests,” the Kaine spokesperson said, using the acronym for Congressionally Directed Spending, the Senate’s term for earmarks.

“Senator Kaine and Secretary Holton have not discussed the requests,” the spokesman said. “Kaine will continue to advocate for good ideas brought forth by George Mason University, the largest public research university in Virginia, just as he does for good ideas brought to him by any other university or community college in Virginia offering innovative solutions to complex issues facing Virginians.” 

The Senate has similar ethics rules regarding earmarks as the House. They state that a senator may not “knowingly use his official position to introduce, request, or otherwise aid the progress or passage” of earmarks whose principal purpose is to further the financial interests of the Senator or their immediate family.

“Since Senator Kaine clearly follows this rule, he did not consult [the Senate Select Committee on] Ethics further,” Kaine’s spokesperson said.

‘It’s almost inevitable’

The phenomenon is not a new one for members of Congress sponsoring earmarks that benefit their spouse’s employers. In 2012, the watchdog group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW) found that 38 members of Congress — 24 Democrats and 14 Republicans — had sent earmarks to a family business, employer or associated nonprofit.

Thomas Schatz, president of the advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste, said the earmark system has improved due to the recent reforms. Still, his group opposes earmarks because they lead to poor federal funding decisions.

“It’s almost inevitable that something will come up that will cause problems for the members,” he said. 

Addressing the issue of lawmakers who sponsor earmarks benefiting their spouses’ employers, Schatz added, “Whether it's something like this that's kind of indirect – or something more direct or some relationship with the lobbyist and the member or the member's family, that something's going to happen because you're talking about thousands of requests.”

The fact that these federal spending projects are open to examination at all is a positive feature of the transparency provided through the earmarks system, said Zach Courser, a visiting professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Because lawmakers must attach their names to projects they’re requesting, it makes it easier to track and scrutinize their spending decisions.

“It's just a much, much more transparent process,” Courser said. “And I think that's really valuable for journalists, scholars and the American public to know how this process is working.”

Coming next: GOP lawmakers signed a ‘no earmarks’ pledge. Now they’re requesting millions in earmarks.

Start your day with the biggest stories and exclusive reporting from The Messenger Morning, our weekday newsletter.
By signing up, you agree to our privacy policy and terms of use.
Sign Up.