Republicans are spending freely on their 2012 national convention in Tampa, burning through money at a pace that has alarmed some veterans of past conventions and causing more potential problems for Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele.
Spending through September topped $636,800, according to figures in a report to the Federal Election Commission. That is 18 times the amount spent by a comparable time four years ago.
At a time when Steele and the RNC have come under fire for what critics call financial mismanagement, the convention spending has raised questions about oversight and financial controls inside the committee.
"I can't imagine what you'd spend $636,000 on at this point," said David Norcross, a former national committeeman from New Jersey. Norcross chaired the RNC's Committee on Arrangements, which oversees national conventions, in 2004. "Is it possible that it's early spending that would have to take place anyway? It's possible, but I can't imagine what it would be."
Doug Heye, the RNC's communications director, confirmed the $636,000 figure for overall spending but said the arrangements committee operates with some independence and therefore he was not familiar with how the money was spent.
According to an FEC report filed in October for the third quarter of this year, the Arrangements Committee spent about $67,000 on salaries, more than $50,000 each for legal consulting and equipment, about $40,000 on rent, almost $40,000 on site evaluation consulting and about $25,000 on hotel management consulting.
Heye said one reason for early spending was a decision by the RNC, based on recommendations from previous convention managers, to accelerate the process of picking a convention city and making arrangements. The RNC named Tampa as the host city earlier this year.
Heye said this has given Republicans the opportunity to make key decisions, like locking down hotel space, far ahead of schedule.
Other Republicans, however, said the recommendation to select the host city months earlier than normal was to give the host committee addition time to raise the tens of millions required for their responsibilities and to give local corporations the chance to spread their contributions over two budget years.
At present there is neither a chairman of the Committee on Arrangements nor broad membership. The only member is Louis Pope, the Republican National Committeeman from Maryland, who was appointed by Steele as the treasurer last summer.
Steele named Belinda Cook, formerly his assistant, as liaison to the convention. The Washington Times reported this month that her contract calls for $15,000 a month in salary as well as a bonus of $25,000. Cook's son is also on the RNC payroll.
More than half the money spent on rent in the third quarter went to one realty company, according to the FEC report. The Washington Post reported that two unnamed sources said those payments were for a waterfront property in Treasure Island that is being used by Cook.
Heye said he could not confirm this, but did not dispute the amount of the rental payments for the house. He said he believed the housing contract runs only through January.
E-mail messages sent to Cook and Pope, seeking comment, were not returned. A salesperson at the realty company declined to answer questions about the payments or the property, citing privacy considerations.
Four years ago, heavy spending for the national convention did not start until the summer and fall of 2007, about 15 months before the actual event. By the end of September 2006, the party had spent $35,500 on convention arrangements. That compares with the more than $636,000 spent to date. The total amount spent prior to July 2007, was just $411,000 on convention preparations. In contrast, the arrangements committee is on a pace to spend between $2 million and $3 million by next summer.
Cook's contract runs until mid- January, according to the Washington Times, which is when Steele's tenure expires. At that time the national committee will select its chairman for the following two years, with growing controversy over whether Steele should seek another term.