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Senators Use Campaign-Donor Money To Buy Their Own Books

At least six senators who disclosed receiving income from books in 2020—Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)—apparently used money from campaign donors to buy their own books.

The transactions all seem to be legal. Lawmakers are allowed to dip into their campaign coffers to boost book sales, so long as those sales do not increase their personal royalties. “Both the House and Senate place dollar limits on outside employment, but there is?an exception for publishing contracts, which are pre-approved by the ethics committees,” said Brett Kappel, an attorney specializing in campaign finance at Harmon, Curran, Spielberg Eisenberg. “The FEC has issued a long series of advisory opinions allowing members to use campaign funds to buy copies of their own books at a discount from the publisher,?provided that the royalties they would normally receive on those sales are given to charity.” 

Spokespeople for four of the senators all said the campaigns followed the law regarding royalties. 

Even when author royalties go to charity, publishers still make money. That could theoretically prompt certain firms to dole out bigger advances to politicians, knowing they can lock in bulk buys from political committees. A veteran literary agent whose clients have included government officials, however, said that in his experience, no publisher ever discussed his client’s ability to make bulk purchases with campaign funds. And for such purchases to help politicians land on all-important bestseller lists, they would need to go through retailers. All of the purchases Forbes identified were made directly from a publisher, with the exception of those from Sen. Tim Scott’s (R-S.C.) campaign.

Duckworth was the senate’s highest-paid wordsmith, receiving $382,000 from Hachette Book Group in 2020, more than double her $174,000 senate salary. In March, the month her memoir, Every Day Is A Gift, came out, her campaign paid Hachette $12,000 for “supporter acknowledgements,” according to an FEC filing. A spokesperson for the campaign said Duckworth followed the law: “None of the purchases from the campaign to Hachette resulted in any royalties to the senator.” 

Macmillan paid Warren a $250,000 advance last year. Persist, her third book with the publisher, came out this May, and her debut children’s book, also with MacMillan, is scheduled to hit bookstores in October. Warren’s campaigns have bought $19,000 worth of books and “supporter acknowledgements” from her publisher, according to FEC filings. Warren earned an additional $28,000 in royalties from a book deal with Aspen Publishers. A spokesperson for Warren did not respond to requests for comment. 

Cotton received $202,000 in royalties from HarperCollins last year. His book sales received a boost from the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political-action committee founded by former Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). According to the Washington Post, that PAC committed almost $90,000 to buy Cotton’s Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour of Arlington National Cemetery, which became a bestseller. The senator’s campaign also paid HarperCollins $3,200 for “publications” in 2019, according to an FEC filing. A Cotton spokesperson made it clear that the Arkansas senator had also been careful to stay on the right side of the law: “Senator Cotton’s campaign purchased a small number of books for gifts, and he did not receive royalties for these purchases.”  

Simon Schuster issued Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) a $108,000 advance for her Daughter of the Heartland: My Ode to the Country That Raised Me. Two months after her book came out, Ernst’s campaign paid Simon Schuster $5,200 for “books,” according to a campaign filing. “Senator Ernst received no royalties from any books purchased by the campaign,” a spokesperson said. 

Opportunity Knocks: How Hard Work, Community, and Business Can Improve Lives and End Poverty earned Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) $85,000 in royalties from Hachette Book Group last year. Scott’s campaign spent $6,500 on books at retailers in the four months after his memoir hit shelves.  

Sherrod Brown’s campaign bought unsold copies of his book for less than $3 apiece, coordinating with the publisher to make sure the sales didn’t produce royalties, according to a spokesperson for the Ohioan, who added: “The campaign gives those leftover books to campaign volunteers, supporters and interns.”  

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