Castor, Bilirakis hope to make crackdown on 'zombie campaigns' part of Democrats' campaign finance reform

ZOMBIE CAMPAIGNS Illustration by Steve Madden, Tampa Bay Times
ZOMBIE CAMPAIGNS Illustration by Steve Madden, Tampa Bay Times
Published March 5, 2019

TAMPA — The Democrats' first act after winning control of the U.S. House of Representatives was to file a sweeping voting rights and campaign finance reform bill.

Now two Tampa Bay area lawmakers say that effort should also target so-called zombie campaigns, those kept open by former politicians to finance their lifestyles, advance new careers and pay family members.

Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, and Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Palm Harbor Republican, are co-sponsoring an amendment to the For The People Act that would close a loophole that allows ex-lawmakers to hoard unspent campaign donations for years after they leave office.

It requires outgoing lawmakers to close their campaign accounts within two years and also bans payments to family members once they leave office.

The amendment is based on the "Honest Elections and Campaign, No Gain Act" that the two lawmakers filed in April in response to a Tampa Bay Times / 10News WTSP investigation that turned up about 100 so-called zombie campaigns kept open by former politicians.

"When I talk to my neighbors and everyday folks they simply are not convinced that Washington is working for them," Castor said. "This abuse by former members of congress converting campaign dollars to personal use many years after they decide not to run, it really undermines confidence."

The amendment is scheduled to be heard by the House Committee on Rules today. Castor said she has recruited the support of Maryland Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin, who serves on that committee.

"The fact it's bipartisan should help it get a hearing and possibly a vote on the House floor," she said.

The Times/WTSP investigation found former lawmakers and former candidates spending leftover donations on airline tickets, club memberships, a limo trip, cell phones, parking and new computers. Twenty former lawmakers were still spending leftover donations more than a decade after they left office.

Roughly half of the zombie campaigns were kept open by ex-lawmakers who went into lobbying. Under the proposed amendment, they would be required to close their campaign accounts before starting in that industry.

The Times/WTSP investigation also found that the Federal Election Commission failed to act on campaign finance reports showing former politicians kept spending donations even after telling the agency they were no longer running for office. It led the federal agency in April to announce that it will start scrutinizing the spending of what it called "dormant" campaigns.

A Washington, D.C., watchdog group also petitioned the federal agency to rule which expenses former lawmakers can pay with campaign donations and to place a time limit on how long campaign accounts can remain open. That petition is still pending.

Bilirakis said there is still a need for a legislative fix to the abuses highlighted in the investigation. In addition to the amendment, he is also a co-sponsor on a bill introduced Feb. 15 by Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) to limit how long former political candidates can hold on to campaign funds.

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"These amendments represent good public policy and I am happy to work with them once again to end the abuses occurring within our current system," Bilirakis said.

Takano's bill, known as the Let It Go Act, would give outgoing lawmakers six years to wind down their campaigns. An exception would be made for those who move into lobbying. They would be required to close their accounts within one year.

FEC rules allow unspent donations to be refunded to donors or given away to other candidates, political committees or charities. But the law sets no deadline to close a campaign once a politician leaves office.

"Recent reporting on 'zombie campaigns' and campaign fund misuse point to the urgency of why this change in the law is needed," Takano said in an email. "The American people are looking for bold action in Congress to combat the culture of corruption in our political process."

But neither bill would seem to have much chance of passing the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate whose leader, Mitch McConnell, has publicly blasted the For the People Act. Castor said that it's still important for her party to push ahead with legislation it believes in.

"In divided government right now, we've got to demonstrate what we're for on the Democratic side," she said. "You find common ground where you can and you fight for your values every day."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.