1. Opinion

Editorial: Finally, a crackdown on 'zombie campaigns'

The federal government has finally taken a baby step toward cracking down on so-called "zombie campaigns" — political committees that keep spending campaign contributions long after the campaign has ended. This marks the government's first serious attempt to shut down these legalized scams, and it should shame former officeholders and Congress to finally end the practice for good.

The Federal Election Commission sent letters to more than a dozen campaigns in May flagging specific expenses and asking why their accounts were still open. It was the agency's first enforcement action since it announced in April 2018 that it would start scrutinizing the spending of what it characterized as "dormant campaigns." That policy was triggered by a 2018 investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and 10News WTSP that chronicled how candidates had spent campaign money years or decades after leaving office. Federal law prohibits the personal use of campaign funds. But the Times/WTSP investigation found more than 100 former politicians ran zombie campaigns that kept spending long after their political careers had ended — often financing their lifestyles, paying family members or advancing new careers.

The agency sent letters last month to at least 27 campaigns highlighted in the Times/WTSP investigation and to several other prominent politicians, including former presidential candidate Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. The agency's letter to Romney's presidential campaign flagged nearly $40,000 in disbursements as apparent personal use of campaign funds. Investigators focused on Senate and presidential candidates who had not run or held office for four years; for House candidates, the agency established a two-year window. The letter to former South Florida Rep. Mark Foley identified almost $23,000 in spending in late 2018 that may have been "apparent personal use of campaign funds," including sponsorships and membership dues for Palm Beach civic organizations. The agency flagged specific expenses by at least 17 campaigns, and gave all those notified 35 days to respond, after which it could pursue fines through enforcement action.

The threat of enforcement proceedings is a wake-up call that could lead some former candidates to end this abuse. Federal records show that seven campaigns highlighted by the Times/WTSP shut down on their own after the investigation ran. But it will take more than rule-making authority and fines for some former candidates to abandon a gravy train that has provided everything from airline travel and limos to club memberships and computers.

The House has already voted for a proposal that would force politicians to shut down their campaigns in a timely manner. But the measure was bundled with a larger package of voting rights and campaign finance reform favored by Democrats that the Republican-controlled Senate refused to consider. Sponsors need to separate the zombie provision, which enjoys bipartisan support, from the larger package and attach it to less controversial legislation. The election commission, though, has kept the issue alive with a timely shot against dozens of campaigns. That should help pressure ex-candidates to clean up their act and for Congress to take a much-needed step to end this abuse.