WASHINGTON – The controversy over Republican National Committee spending has led to the resignation of its chief of staff, but party Chairman Michael Steele remains insistent that he isn't going anywhere.
The resignation of RNC chief of staff Ken McKay on Monday made him the highest-profile official to depart the central committee after the revelation that the committee had picked up a nearly $2,000 tab at a sex-themed California night club. The incident proved embarrassing and a midlevel staffer was dismissed, a move that was not enough to assuage social conservatives urging a fundraising boycott.
In an internal memo Monday, Steele said he and his staff had "the responsibility to assure our donors, volunteers and voters that it's nothing but our core mission which drives every dollar we spend, every phone call we make, every e-mail we send and every event we organize. Recent events have called that into question. The buck stops with me. That is why I have made this change in management."
"The goal driving this decision has been your ability to do what you do best — going on offense with message, raising money, building relationships with key coalitions, getting out the vote, grooming new donors, and crushing Democrats in November," Steele said. "Every minute spent on distractions is an unacceptable missed opportunity to do what you do best — taking back our country for the American people."
Steele had insisted earlier Monday that he would not resign and defended his stewardship of party affairs. He dismissed criticism — some of it has centered on spending on flights, limousines and high-dollar hotels — as the talk of GOP figures uncomfortable with his "streetwise" managerial style.
Asked in a nationally broadcast interview if he would step down in the face of criticism of the party's financial management, Steele replied, "No." He said some people had been second-guessing him "since the day that I got the job."
That confidence was not extended to McKay. As the chief of staff, he ran day-to-day operations at RNC headquarters and was the top aide to a chairman who found few defenders.
McKay's resignation also prompted one of Steele's top advisers, Curt Anderson, to leave the committee's circle of consultants.
"Ken McKay's departure is a huge loss for the Republican Party. Ken steered the party through very successful elections last fall that have given us tremendous momentum. He's a great talent," Anderson said in a statement.
"Given our firm's commitments to campaigns all over the country, we have concluded it is best for us to step away from our advisory role at the RNC. We have high personal regard for the chairman and always have; we wish him well," he said.
Anderson may have seen his ties to Steele and the RNC as a liability for his business, the consulting firm OnMessage Inc. Any of his clients could be tied to sex-themed clubs if Anderson remained linked with Steele.
Anderson helped recruit McKay to the RNC from the staff of Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri, where he previously served as his chief of staff and campaign manager. It wasn't clear if McKay, a well-respected operative, resigned voluntarily or was forced from his post, one of the most powerful in a party in the minority in both the House and the Senate.
Steele replaced McKay with Mike Leavitt, who joined the RNC as deputy chief of staff two months ago. He ran Steele's losing Senate campaign in 2006 and is close to the chairman. He also helped Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell win election last year.
Steele has faced mounting criticism and pressure. A top congressional Republican said Sunday the RNC must be held accountable for the way it uses the money it raises in light of the much-criticized Hollywood outing.
"This kind of thing has got to stop or they won't get any contributions," said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.
Steele was not present at the Voyeur Hollywood West on Jan. 31 when a group of young Republicans ran a tab picked up by the RNC. After reporters noted the bill in a funding report, the RNC fired a staffer it blamed for the outing and said it would be reimbursed by a donor who had attended.
Even as Steele and the national committee are being criticized for lavish spending habits, Steele has hired a special finance assistant who himself was fined by the District of Columbia three years ago for improperly spending money from a political action committee, according to published reports. The special assistant, Neil Alpert, will help with fundraising, The Washington Post reported Monday.