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  1. Investigations

Bilirakis, Castor target ‘zombie campaigns’ loophole with new restrictions

“A member shouldn’t be able to have these accounts live on for decades and use those funds for personal use – that’s wrong,” Rep. Castor said.

ST. PETERSBURG — Two local members are calling on Congress to close a loophole that allows ex-lawmakers to hoard unspent campaign donations for years after they leave office.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the Palm Harbor Republican, and Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, are co-sponsoring the "Honest Elections and Campaign, No Gain Act." The bipartisan bill requires outgoing lawmakers to close their campaign accounts within two years and also bans payments to family members once they leave office.

The veteran lawmakers said the bill is in direct response to a Tampa Bay Times / 10News WTSP investigation that turned up about 100  so-called zombie campaigns, kept open by former politicians to finance their lifestyles, advance new careers and pay family members.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.

"Thanks to your reporting we understand the extent of some of the abuses," Castor said. "A member shouldn't be able to have these accounts live on for decades and use those funds for personal use – that's wrong."

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 new bill, they wold be required to close their campaign accounts before starting in that industry.

But the bill does not address campaigns that continue spending even after the lawmaker dies. The investigation identified eight such campaigns where staffers authorized spending on lavish dinners, cell phone bills and rent checks.

Bilirakis said Castor and he will advocate support for the bill with their respective parties. But he expects some opposition.

"You're going to get some resistance," Bilirakis said. "Probably some former members of Congress will lobby against this bill."

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis

Under the proposed law, the two-year period to wind down a campaign would begin on the day after the deadline to qualify for the next election.

As with current law, unspent campaign donations could be given to charity, donated to local, state or national political parties or refunded to the original donor.

But it would prohibit candidates from transferring the money into their own political action committees, which is allowed under current regulations.

The bill would only apply to members of the U.S. House and Senate and not to presidential candidates.

The Times/WTSP investigation also led a Washington, D.C., watchdog group to petition the Federal Election Commisson to specify which costs former lawmakers can pay with campaign donations. It also asks the agency to place a time limit on how long campaign accounts can remain open.

On March 21, the FEC began a 60-day public comment period. Commissioners are expected to review the proposal after that.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times

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