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  1. Investigations

FEC plans crackdown on zombie campaigns

"For them to do this in the middle of an election cycle is highly unusual,” one expert said.
Zombie Campaigns/Times illustration
Zombie Campaigns/Times illustration
Published Apr. 26, 2018
Updated Apr. 26, 2018

The federal agency that oversees elections has announced a crackdown on former lawmakers who continue to spend leftover campaign donations long after leaving office.

The Federal Election Commission announced Wednesday that it will start scrutinizing the spending of what it called "dormant" campaigns — those maintained by former lawmakers who took advantage of a loophole that allowed them to hoard unspent campaign donations for years.

It comes after a Tampa Bay Times/10News WTSP investigation found that the agency ignored campaign finance reports showing more than 100 former politicians carried on spending donations even though they were no longer campaigning. In some cases, these zombie campaigns remained open for more than a decade.

[ Read the investigation: The campaign is over. The candidate might be dead. But the spending never stops. ]

"I think this is great, a really positive step the FEC is taking," said Adav Noti, a former FEC attorney who is now a senior director for the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington D.C.  watchdog group. "For them to do this in the middle of an election cycle is highly unusual."

The extra scrutiny of former lawmakers' spending will begin in July. It will apply to the campaigns of former U.S House candidates who did not campaign or hold office during the previous two years and to former U.S. Senate and presidential candidates who have been out of office and not campaigning for four years.

The move was approved in a closed-door meeting Tuesday by FEC commissioners, who had previously refused to comment on the Times/WTSP investigation, called "Zombie Campaigns." The report detailed that former lawmakers and former candidates spent leftover donations on airline tickets, club memberships, a limo trip, cell phones, parking and new computers. Six campaign finance experts said that and other spending identified by the Times/WTSP were potential election law violations. In a few cases, spending continued after the lawmaker had died.

FEC vice chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic appointee, said the Times/WTSP report highlighted a problem that was not on the FEC's radar. The need for action was supported by all four of the agency's commissioners, she said.

"It was encouraging that the entire Commission saw this as a problem that needs to be addressed and agreed on a course of action that would be a good first step," she said. "I've always been concerned about the potential for personal use and advocated for strengthening those prohibitions."

It's unclear how effective the new FEC policy will be, however.

The agency, which has 33 analysts, is not planning to add more staff to help with the additional work, a spokeswoman said. Last year, the agency was responsible for reviewing some 26 million financial transactions. That number will rise this year with U.S. House and Senate races across the county.

In the past, when spending by former politicians has been questioned, little if any action resulted. In eight cases identified by the Times/WTSP, campaigns were asked for more information, sent the FEC paperwork stating they were not running for office, then continued spending.

The new oversight also stops short of the legal changes watchdog groups and two veteran Tampa Bay federal lawmakers say are needed to deter ex-politicians from hoarding and spending campaign funds.

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.

"I think it's positive the FEC is going to a shine a light on this and review these campaigns but it's no substitute for our bipartisan bill," Castor said. "The FEC is just requesting a review – our bill would terminate those zombie campaigns after an election cycle. They need that."

In addition, the Campaign Legal Center petitioned the FEC in February to introduce stricter rules for how former lawmakers spend leftover campaign money. A 60-day public comment period on the petition ends May 21.

"Some commissioners may now say we've already stepped up enforcement in this area so we don't need to strengthen the rules," Noti said. "That would be disappointing and concerning."

Based on the most recent campaign filings, there will be no shortage of spending for FEC analysts to question.

Congressman Bud Cramer, R-Ala., reported spending more than $1,800 on Feb. 7 on a "fundraising expense" at The Source, a pricey Wolfgang Puck restaurant in Washington DC.

But Cramer, who left office in 2009 and went into lobbying, did not report any fundraising receipts in the first quarter and has not filed paperwork to run for office. Candidates are prohibited from most fundraising activities when they have not declared for an office. He could not be reached for comment.

Former Congressman Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., has continued paying his wife $1,000 per month to file his quarterly FEC report, his latest filing shows. More than five years after he left office, campaign funds covered nearly $200 in "internet/wifi" expenses in January and February.

And former South Carolina Democratic congressman Robin Tallon, who has kept his campaign account open for 25 years, paid $1,000 to his son for filing a 15-page handwritten report to the FEC.

Other ex-lawmakers' campaigns have changed their spending habits in the wake of the Times/WTSP report.

Dylan Beesley, a former campaign adviser who took over as treasurer of the campaign of deceased Congressman Mark Takai, paid himself more than $100,000 over a 17-month period for "consulting" after Takai's 2016 death. That led to a watchdog group filing a complaint against him with the FEC.

In the first quarter of 2018, however, he paid himself just $1,500, roughly $5,000 less than in the first quarter of 2017.

WTSP reporter Noah Pransky and Times data reporter Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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