National News

FEC plans crackdown on zombie campaigns

Posted April 28, 2018 12:08 p.m. EDT

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 that more than 100 former politicians carried on spending donations though they were no longer campaigning. In some cases, these zombie campaigns remained open for more than a decade.

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

The extra scrutiny 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/10News investigation, called "Zombie Campaigns." The report detailed former lawmakers and candidates spending leftover donations on airline tickets, club memberships, cellphones, parking and new computers. Six campaign finance experts said the spending represented potential election law violations.

FEC vice chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic appointee, said the Times/10News 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.

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

The agency, which has 33 analysts, is not planning to add staff to help with the additional work, a spokeswoman said. Last year the agency was responsible for reviewing some 26 million financial transactions.

In the past, when spending by former politicians was questioned, little, if any, action resulted. In eight cases identified by the Times/10News investigation, 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 that 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 a bill requiring outgoing lawmakers to close their campaign accounts within two years. The bill also would ban payments to family members once the lawmakers leave office.

"The FEC is just requesting a review," Castor said. "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 for a "fundraising expense" at The Source, a pricey Wolfgang Puck restaurant in Washington.

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 Florida Republican congressman Cliff Stearns 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 FEC report.

Other campaigns have changed their spending habits.

Dylan Beesley, a former campaign adviser who took over as treasurer of the campaign of the late congressman Mark Takai, paid himself more than $100,000 over 17 months 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, he paid himself just $1,500, roughly $5,000 less than in the first quarter of 2017.

10News reporter Noah Pransky and Times data reporter Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com.