Zombie campaigns still spending as FEC says no crackdown until 2019

The agency had previously announced an earlier start date, but now says that was a mistake.
[Steve Madden]
[Steve Madden]
Published Aug. 20, 2018|Updated Aug. 20, 2018

Four months ago, the federal agency that oversees elections announced that it would finally begin cracking down on former lawmakers who hoard and spend leftover campaign donations long after they leave office.

That didn’t seem to make a difference to some former congressmen.

Former Florida Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Republican who lost his seat in 2012, dipped into campaign donations to pay for internet service and continued paying a $1,000 monthly salary to his wife in the weeks following the announcement.

And former California congressman Gary Miller added another $2,400 in salary to the almost $82,000 he had already paid his wife since leaving office in 2015. He also paid rent on office space and the tab for several meals at a Claremont eatery, Kick Back Jack’s.

It turns out Stearns and Miller had little reason to worry.

The Federal Election Commission acknowledged last week that it actually won’t begin scrutinizing the spending of former office holders until 2019.

FEC spokeswoman Judith Ingram said that was always the timetable agreed by commissioners in a closed-room session in April, but that the agency had accidentally announced the wrong start date.

That is an unnecessary delay, said Adav Noti, a former FEC attorney who is now a senior director for the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington D.C. watchdog group. Ex-lawmakers have been given plenty of notice, he said.

“I don’t see any reason why the FEC needs to wait another six months to begin doing what it should have been doing all along,” Noti said.

The FEC’s crackdown was announced after a Tampa Bay Times/10News WTSP investigation, called Zombie Campaigns, 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 campaigns remained open for more than a decade.

Retired lawmakers and former candidates spent leftover donations on airline tickets, club memberships, a limo trip, cell phones, parking and new computers, reporters found.

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

It’s unclear if the new guidelines unveiled by the FEC would curb such spending. They 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.

FEC analysts have been instructed to look for spending on rent, utility payments, telephones, spending on meals, club memberships and concert and sporting event tickets, among other items.

But Noti and two veteran Tampa Bay federal lawmakers say the new oversight stops short of the legal changes that are needed to curtail the misuse of campaign funds highlighted by the Times/WTSP report.

The Campaign Legal Center is still waiting for the FEC to act on a petition it filed in February calling for the FEC to specify what costs former lawmakers can expense with campaign donations and to place a time limit on how long campaign accounts can remain open. A 60-day public comment period on the petition ended May 21.

And in April, Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the Palm Harbor Republican, and Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, cosponsored a bill that requires outgoing lawmakers to close their campaign accounts within two years and also bans payments to family members once they leave office.

But the bill, which was co-sponsored by Colorado Republican Congressman Mike Coffman, seems to have stalled.

“Unfortunately, it’s going to be an uphill battle,” said Castor, who plans to push the bill again if the Democrats win control of the House of Representatives in the upcoming midterm elections. “People are very fed up with this climate of corruption.”

Stearns, who has spent $143,000 so far this year, still has $1.5 million in unspent political donations. He did not respond to a voicemail on his cellphone seeking comment.

Miller still has $293,00 in unused donations. A call to his business office was not returned.

Still, with the threat of extra scrutiny, some ex-lawmakers have begun changing their behavior.

Former Florida senator George LeMieux was a focus of the Times / WTSP investigation for spending on events and paying more than $40,000 to a political campaign consultant even though he wasn’t campaigning. In February, he converted his campaign account into a political action committee called the Florida Freedom Committee, a move that allows him to make unlimited donations to political parties and other political committees.

And former South Carolina Democrat Robin Tallon seems to have curbed some of his post-retirement campaign spending, which previously included thousands of dollars on computers and tens of thousands of dollars on unexplained “reimbursements.”

After paying more than $22,000 to his son, Robert Tallon III, to file campaign reports over more than a decade, Tallon appointed a new treasurer in July.

Still, a quarter century after leaving office in 1993, he has more than $1 million remaining in his still-open campaign account.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at Follow @codonnell_Times.