Editorial: Feds should investigate Spano loans

The new U.S. House Republican acknowledges he received personal loans and then loaned his campaign most of that money.
The U.S. Capitol.
The U.S. Capitol.
Published December 7 2018

Campaign finance laws serve a number of worthwhile purposes. They act as a check on unlimited money flooding into a campaign. They expose the financial relationships between candidates and donors, highlighting the potential for special interests to shape public policy. They also are an exercise in transparency for candidates and the government alike. That's why the Federal Election Commission and Congress should examine the loans newly elected Republican U.S. Rep. Ross Spano obtained as part of his winning campaign in November.

Spano acknowledges his campaign financing may have broken the rules. In a filing Nov. 30 to the FEC, he said he took out four personal loans from June through October, totaling $180,000, from two people he described as friends. Then he loaned his campaign $167,000 over virtually the same timetable. Spano's campaign reports listed the money as having come from his "personal funds." In his letter to the FEC, Spano's attorney said Spano and the two lenders believed at the time they were acting "in full compliance with the law."

Yet under federal campaign finance law, a loan made to a candidate with the intent of providing money to a campaign must be considered a campaign contribution, not a candidate's personal funds. And any such loan must adhere to campaign contribution limits - $2,700 each for the primary and general election, far less than what Spano reported he received from the loans. The law's intent is to prevent a wealthy individual from single -handedly bankrolling a candidate.

Spano is an attorney who was elected to three terms in the Florida House, and his failure to accurately report at best reflects poorly on his preparation for higher office. What's worse, he's looking for leniency from the FEC under a provision whereby candidates who "self-report" violations can have their cases fast-tracked and any penalties reduced by between 25 percent and 75 percent of what the commission would have otherwise sought. That forgiveness doesn't seem warranted here; the Tampa Bay Times reported that Spano missed two deadlines this year to file a financial disclosure form, which would have revealed any loans. He filed the form Nov. 3, three days before the election and after the Times asked him about it the day before.

Spano referred the Times to a spokeswoman, who said the missed deadlines were a "campaign error" and added: "We expect to see some penalties here." But she defended Spano, noting he does not practice election law and insisting that his mishandling of the loans was "not a pattern of behavior."

The issue here isn't whether the loans tipped the balance for Spano's six-point victory over Democrat Kristen Carlson in the race for District 15, which covers eastern Hillsborough, western Polk and southern Lake counties. Rather, voters deserve to know who's behind the candidates before they cast their ballots. The whole point of campaign finance laws is to enable voters to make informed decisions. The disclosure requirements are neither invasive nor onerous, and treating them as afterthoughts reflects a disrespect for the elections process and for voters.

The elections commission should carefully investigate this case, as should the House Ethics Committee. The district's voters deserve answers, and Congress needs everything it can to push its voter approval rating above 20 percent.