Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories looking at what former Florida politicians are doing with campaign accounts they never shut down.
Mike Haridopolos‘ 2012 bid for the U.S. Senate never even made it to 2012, but eight years after pulling out of the primary, the Merritt Island Republican continues to benefit from the campaign cash he raked in for that run at federal office.
It appears his lobbying clients, which include NASCAR promoters and an online ticket reseller are also benefiting from the cash.
Haridopolos hauled in $3.5 million in 2011 for his federal run, all while holding the gavel — and wielding enormous power — as Florida Senate President. The money poured in, by the hundreds of thousands of dollars, from individuals at corporations and firms with business before the Senate President.
However, most of the millions went unspent after Haridopolos dropped out of the race that summer.
In the following eight years, Haridopolos cashed out those contributions, using his old campaign funds as a personal checking account, making nearly 100 donations to political committees and candidates, according to federal campaign filings.
Haridopolos sent leftover campaign donations — instead of personal funds — to the very lawmakers he sought to influence in his new career as a lobbyist.
Unlike Florida laws, which require candidates to shut down campaign accounts at the end of each election cycle, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) only “suggests” a six-month wind-down period for federal campaigns, even when they belong to losing, disgraced and dead candidates.
Widespread abuse of federal campaign loopholes was first reported in a nationally recognized investigation, Zombie Campaigns, by the Tampa Bay Times and WTSP-TV. The FEC wasn’t providing any oversight of former candidates’ old accounts, even when there were apparent abuses of federal laws prohibiting personal benefit from those accounts.
The use of “zombie campaign” funds to supplement the private lives of legislators-turned-lobbyists, like Haridopolos, remains mostly unchecked by the FEC; the agency has never stopped a former candidate from using the funds as a lobbying tool.
In the last year, Haridopolos’ campaign has donated more than $100,000 to Florida political action committees connected to Florida legislators, including future House Speaker Paul Renner‘s “Conservatives for Principled Leadership.”
Among the committees Renner sits on is the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations subcommittee; among Haridopolos’ clients is U.S. Sugar.
Haridopolos’ campaign also gave $25,000 to Ron DeSantis‘ gubernatorial campaign last year, before Haridopolos registered to lobby DeSantis’ administration in 2019 on behalf of 19 lobbying clients. Haridopolos’ campaign donated to then-Gov. Rick Scott in 2018 as well, while also lobbying his administration.
In 2018, campaign records show Haridopolos gave $2,000 to the congressional campaign of state Sen. Greg Steube. Florida lawmakers are prohibited from raising funds during Session, in part to reduce conflicts-of-interest, but Haridopolos’ contribution was allowed because Steube was asking for checks for a federal run.
Several campaign finance experts and watchdogs, consulted for the Zombie Campaigns investigation, said leftover campaign donations should immediately go to charity, other political causes or refunded to donors — not banked for years of spending at the former candidates’ digression.
“Campaign accounts are meant to be for campaigns, that’s it,” said Jordan Libowicz, communications director for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
“When people are no longer running for office, they need to wind their accounts down. If they don’t, they could end up spending money donated to them for the specific purpose of electing them to further their business interests — which could violate the law.”
Following the release of the Zombie Campaigns investigation in January 2018, Haridopolos said he kept his campaign account open for seven years because he was “keeping the door open” to another run for federal office. A year later, with the campaign account still open and active, Haridopolos said via email that he had no plans to run for office in 2020.
Haridopolos pulled in big bucks for his run for the U.S. Senate, but the bid was short-lived; he withdrew from the race after just six months, as the heat grew from several controversies surrounding him and the state Republican Party in the summer of 2011.
The Times/WTSP investigation also found the majority of former federal candidates closed down their accounts within the FEC’s suggested six-month window.
This is the first in a series. If you have tips or requests to investigate former candidates with zombie campaigns still open, email firstname.lastname@example.org.