Jane O'Meara Sanders, his wife, received $91,020 between 2002 and 2004 for "consultation" and for negotiating the purchase of television and radio time-slots for Sanders' advertisements, according to records and interviews.
Approximately $61,000 of that was "pass through" money that was used to pay media outlets for advertising time, Jane O'Meara Sanders said in an interview. The rest, about $30,000, she kept as payment for her services, she said.
Carina Driscoll, daughter to Jane O'Meara Sanders and stepdaughter to the lawmaker, earned $65,002 in "wages" between 2000 and 2004, campaign records show.
Driscoll, a former state legislator, served as Rep. Sanders' campaign manager in 2000, his fund-raiser and office manager in 2003 and his database manager in 2004, according to Jeff Weaver, Sanders' chief of staff.
"Both of them are regarded as people who are knowledgable about Vermont politics," Weaver said Tuesday. "They earned every penny they got."
It seems Sanders is the only member of Vermont's congressional delegation to employ family members. "Sen. Jeffords has not hired any members of his family on his current or past campaigns," said Erik Smulson, his communications director. A spokesman for Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy said the same thing.
No laws prohibit candidates from paying family members for campaign work. But the appearance that lawmakers use their position to benefit people close to them concerns watchdog groups.
"Anytime you pay a family member there's going to be questions raised," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group in Washington.
The real question, he says, is whether family members conducted work commesurate to their pay. If they did, "then it's more difficult to say (lawmakers) are funneling money back to the family."
Mary Bloyer, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, a nonprofit advocacy group, said: "The danger here is that you want members of Congress who are in Washington to serve their constituents and not enrich their families. Something like this makes people look twice and makes them wonder what's going on here."
Jane O'Meara Sanders said she worked for her husband for years with no pay, and started charging him only after opening a consulting company, Progressive Media Strategies, which was changed to Leadership Strategies.
"It became clear I could not offer professional services to other candidates and charge them if I worked for Bernie for free," she said.
Still, Jane O'Meara Sanders said her fees are comparatively low, especially for her husband.
"I think the fact that other candidates have chosen to hire me and pay more than what Bernie pays me says that my services are pretty good," she said.
The ethics of lawmakers paying their families jumped into the spotlight on Capitol Hill last week, following reports that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas had paid his wife and daughter more than $500,000 for campaign-related work.
Jim Barrett, chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, used Sanders' family payments to highlight what he said is Democratic "hypocrisy" for fiercely attacking DeLay. "It's the standard hypocrisy from the left," Barrett said. "When a Republican does it, it's inappropriate and front page news. But now it turns out, our own Bernie Sanders has been doing it for a long time."
He added: "If it's corruption when Tom DeLay does it, then it's corruption when Bernie Sanders does it."
Jon Copans, executive director of the state Democratic Party, declined to comment.
But Democratic groups are targeting DeLay for defeat in his 2006 election.
Vermont-based Democracy for America, started by former Gov. Howard Dean, disseminated a mass e-mail Tuesday asking supporters for witty slogans it can paste on billboards in DeLay's Texas district. The billboards, the e-mail says, will let voters there know "it's time for him to go."
Weaver, Sanders' chief of staff, said it was unfair to compare the Vermont Independent with DeLay, who paid his family much more in a shorter period of time.
"For the work they did, they got exactly what anyone else would have been paid," he said of Jane O'Meara Sanders and Driscoll. "Politics is like anything else - you always try to hire the best person."
Even Barrett admitted that the $65,000 earned by Driscoll over four years "almost sounds low."
But he said, "We don't know what she was doing for work. Was she a full-time operative? Were these just consulting fees? Who knows?"
Sanders DeLayed! Or is he guilty of Barbara Boxerism?.