Mark Foley is ready to return to Congress, and the only things standing in his way may be reapportionment … and reputation.
Responding to a May 29 Federal Election Commission inquiry as to why he was still spending 13-year-old campaign contributions, a representative for Foley indicated the West Palm Beach Republican kept his campaign account active because he is plotting another run for office and he “anticipates making a final decision sometime following the reapportionment resulting from the upcoming decennial census.”
Foley, 64, resigned in disgrace in 2006 after he was caught sending lewd messages to underage boys who served as Congressional pages. He never faced any criminal charges related to the incident, and it took two years for him to apologize publicly.
But the sudden departure left him with a hefty $1.7 million war chest of unspent donations that were never refunded or handed off to another committee. Instead, Foley used that balance over the last 13 years to buy tickets, tables, and dinners to posh West Palm Beach events.
He was one of more than 100 former politicians exposed by the Tampa Bay Times and WTSP-TV for keeping campaign accounts open and operating long after their campaigns and careers appeared to be over.
However, campaign treasurer-to-the-stars Nancy Watkins, recently brought on to help Foley, says the campaign remains alive because his career is not yet dead.
“Those expenditures kept (Foley) visible within the community, while he considers a possible future run for office,” Watkins said of Foley’s Palm Beach-area social spending. “They were all legitimate expenditures to bona fide nonprofits.”
The FEC allows former candidates to send excess funds back to donors, to other established political committees, or registered nonprofits. Federal law prohibits personal benefit from those donations, but Watkins — after conducting a full review of Foley’s spending since 2006 — doesn’t believe he crossed a line.
“I found nothing inappropriate or impermissible for someone who was considering a possible run (for office) in the future,” Watkins added. “All expenses were legal.”
The FEC specifically questioned Foley about regular payments his campaign made to organizations like the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches and the Palm Beach chapter of the Economic Forum. They were among the $35,000 the former Congressman spent on sponsorships with South Florida organizations in 2018, where he would typically get a membership, a table, or recognition in exchange for his contribution.
The FEC did not review former members’ campaigns before last year’s Tampa Bay Times/WTSP “Zombie Campaign” investigation, but Foley’s campaign also paid for a new computer in September 2015 and his trip to attend the January 2016 GOP presidential debate in Charleston, South Carolina.
Foley’s visibility has grown in South Florida in recent years, appearing at multiple events for Donald Trump, who also happens to be his friend and a frequent campaign donor. According to federal records, then-businessman Trump made a series of 10 contributions to Foley’s campaign between 1997 and 2006, totaling $9,500.
It’s not clear if reputation or reapportionment are the biggest hurdles standing in the way of a Foley comeback; it could depend on how the Florida Legislature draws congressional districts ahead of the 2022 election.
The wealthy enclaves of Palm Beach County lean Republican and part of the county makes up what is currently Florida’s 18th Congressional District, a seat won by Republican Brian Mast by narrow margins in both 2016 and 2018. To the south are several seats held by Democrats, increasingly safe as one drives down the coast, closer to Miami.
Florida is also expected to pick up two new congressional districts following the 2020 census, although experts say the addition of a citizenship question could cut that number in half.
As for Foley’s reputation hurdle, the former Congressman would need to convince voters he’s a changed man, 16 years after his 2006 resignation and 21 years after he sent lewd instant messages over AOL in 2001.
Foley has declined recent requests for comment, but said in 2017, before the release of the “Zombie Campaign” investigation: “There’s a slim likelihood I could run for office again … the world’s changed, so I may one day want to run for a seat.”
Polls show the nation’s opinions on same-sex relationships have evolved, but there’s not much polling when it comes to tolerance for adults who send inappropriate messages to underage teens.