Investigating U.S. Senator Kamala Harris’ Chief of Staff…
On January 3, Kamala Harris was sworn in as U.S. Senator from California by then-Vice President Joe Biden. The C-SPAN tape of the ceremony shows her chief of staff, Nathan Barankin, beaming in the background.
The day before her swearing-in was Harris’ last day serving as the attorney general of California. It was also Barankin’s last day as chief deputy attorney general of California.
Why does this matter?
Tracking bureaucratic details about Barankin’s final year at the California Department of Justice reveals important, ethical challenges.
The story starts with a questionable severance payment made to Barankin. Issues regarding his role for Harris’ Senate campaign are raised – and left unanswered by Harris. As for where the story ends, well – it’s not over yet.
Three days after Harris was sworn in to the Senate, the Department of Justice gave Barankin a $116,905 “cash-out” check to cover his unused annual leave. The payment substantially exceeded the cap on the amount of annual leave that managerial employees are allowed to accumulate under the California Code of Regulations.
According to public records, in 2016, Barankin’s monthly pay averaged about $14,000. His cash-out covered 155 days of unused annual leave. But California regulations prohibit managers from accumulating more than 102 days of annual leave.
When the leave balance exceeds the cap, the employee is required to take time off, said Lynda Gledhill, a spokesperson for the state agency that oversees employee benefits. A cash-out for unused leave cannot typically be for more than the cap. The reason for capping the amount of accumulated leave is twofold: The state requires employees to take vacations as a matter of emotional health… And cash-outs for more than the capped amounts are taken out of operating funds, messing up the budget.
The Department of Justice acknowledged that Barankin was credited for more leave than is allowed by the regulations. In fact, Barankin’s cash-out exceeded the limit by 53 days – translating into $37,000.
Barankin did not respond to queries about whether he used his annual-leave benefits to work as the communications director of Harris’ senatorial campaign during 2016.
According to an expert consulted for this story, if Barankin did not use annual leave to work with the campaign, he may have fallen afoul of laws prohibiting state employees from working on campaigns during normal working hours, which, if it occurred with any pattern of regularity, could evoke criminal and civil penalties – at the discretion of the Department of Justice.
After Harris was elected attorney general in 2011, she chose Barankin to manage the department’s 5,000 employees. He had previously worked as a communications director for former state attorney general Bill Lockyer.
In late February 2016, I telephoned the press office at the Harris campaign headquarters in Los Angeles. I wanted the candidate to review the findings of an investigative story about a purported breast cancer epidemic in California.
I spoke with the campaign’s digital director, Mariah Craven, who told me that all press questions were being handled by Barankin at the attorney general’s office. Barankin did not return messages that I left on his phone at the department, but I persevered.
On March 8, 2016, Craven, who had worked as Attorney General Harris’ press secretary in 2015, e-mailed me using a campaign e-mail address, “I sent your request [for an interview with Harris] to the communications staff in the office of the Attorney General. If they’re able to set something up, they will reach out to you directly.”
Aware that Craven may have crossed the statutory firewall that compels the separation of the operations of the campaign and the attorney general’s office, I wrote back, “This is a campaign issue, not an attorney general issue. Please provide the contact information for the director of communications for the campaign, so I may speak with him/her directly.”
Prior to the publication of this story, neither Barankin nor Harris’ press office responded to repeated emails and telephone calls requesting comment for the story and clarification of the facts presented in it, including Barankin’s status with the campaign.
In a written response to my request for the Department of Justice’s authorization for Barankin to work on the Harris campaign, Becerra stated, “Mr. Barankin did not work on [Harris’] senatorial campaign.”
After I presented Becerra with evidence that Barankin did work on the campaign, he responded, “The DOJ has no records of what he may or may not have been doing on his own time.”
According to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), on December 14, 2016, Harris’ Senate campaign reimbursed Barankin $2,194 for “primary” campaign travel expenses. The reimbursed items are not clearly delineated, but they appear to include $1,532 for the Holiday Inn Capitol in Washington, D.C. and a series of Uber rides. In March 2017, the Harris campaign reimbursed Barankin $54 for an undisclosed travel expense attributed to the primary campaign. (Harris won the primary election in June 2016 and the general election in November 2016.)
Federal election records do not reveal the dates of Barankin’s trip to Washington. The Holiday Inn Capitol is not expensive by corporate-lobbyist standards. At $100 a night, he could have stayed for two weeks. The records do not reveal what Barankin was doing on behalf of the primary campaign. Nor do they reveal if he took a leave of absence from his job as a deputy attorney general while working for the campaign.
There is no FEC record of Barankin being paid a salary by the campaign… Presumably, he volunteered his time. Did Barankin perform volunteer work for the campaign and travel on its dime while he was being paid by the Department of Justice to do his job?
According to attorney Julie H. Biggs, who is an expert in California public agency law, state legal codes prohibit officials from participating in political-campaign activities during working hours or on state property or using state office equipment, including computers and telephones.
Biggs, who is a partner at Aleshire & Wynder in Riverside, California, said, “If Barankin was volunteering his time with the Harris campaign during normal business hours that would certainly be a misuse, and potentially a misappropriation, of public funds.”
Those actions could give rise to criminal and civil actions under California laws, should law enforcers choose to investigate, Biggs explained.
Biggs observed that answering an occasional e-mail from a campaign worker would slip under the normal-working-hours prohibition as “incidental and minimal,” but engaging in campaign business beyond rare events is not allowed by government codes.
The Department of Justice is charged with enforcing these codes.
Neither Harris’ press office nor Barankin responded to multiple requests by telephone and e-mail to clarify whether or not he performed campaign work during normal business hours at the Department of Justice. Surely, the public has a right to know.
After this story was published online, it was edited to reflect additional information regarding Barankin’s relationship to the Harris campaign.
Peter Byrne combines investigative reporting with science writing. He wrote a feature profile on Kamala Harris – The Kamala Contradiction – last month in American Consequences. Kamala remains at the top of the list of likely Democratic presidential candidates in 2020.
Peter’s reporting has been recognized by Investigative Reporters & Editors, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Society of Professional Journalists. His books on strange physics, medical fraud, and political corruption are critically acclaimed. Based in Northern California, his work can be found at