Eighteen months after Tom Price resigned as Secretary of Health and Human Services over his misuse of private and military aircraft, the Georgia Republican may be plotting a comeback.
A $19,500 expenditure for “polling” was disclosed on the first-quarter finance report for Price for Congress, the campaign account the veteran lawmaker never closed down, even as he served in President Donald Trump‘s Cabinet for six months in 2017.
Price resigned in Sept. 2017 amid allegations, first reported by POLITICO, that he and his staff violated federal rules and wasted tax dollars by taking dozens of charter and military flights when commercial alternatives were available. An HHS audit in 2018 concluded Price should reimburse the agency $341,000 for the waste.
Because Price’s 2019 polling expenditures were not listed as donations on his campaign finance report, it appears the polling was for his own campaign activity, although it is not clear what kind of research he may have been doing. Campaign Treasurer Paul Kilgore did not return requests for comment about the Jan. 29 disbursement.
Price’s successor in Congress was Republican Karen Handel, but in 2018, Handel lost the seat to Democrat Lucy McBath by a razor-thin margin, ending 39 years of Republican control in Georgia’s 6th District. Twenty of those years, the seat was held by Newt Gingrich. Roll Call rated the district a “lean Democrat” race for 2020.
Price was one of seven lawmakers-turned-cabinet members, appointed by Trump, who kept spending Congressional campaign funds after leaving Congress.
In his first year after leaving Congress, Price spent nearly $100,000 in campaign donations on expenses ranging from meals to airfare to cellphone bills. FEC guidelines indicate a former lawmaker should take no more than six months to close an account after he or she leaves the legislature, although the agency does not require an account to be shut down and it has historically provided very little oversight over what former legislators do with leftover campaign money.
An investigation by WTSP-TV and the Tampa Bay Times identified how more than 100 prominent former lawmakers and presidential candidates kept their “Zombie Campaigns” open for years after they stopped campaigning, often using the accounts as personal slush funds to subsidize their post-public lives.
These abuses seemed to run afoul of FEC rules prohibiting personal benefit from campaign funds. In reaction to the investigation, bipartisan legislation was proposed that would prohibit old accounts, such as Price’s, from staying open and spending indefinitely.
Language from the bill was eventually adopted into the wide-ranging H.R. 1 ethics bill, passed by House Democrats in March, but the significant reform package is unlikely to get a hearing in the Senate.