Connect with us

Federal

Big-name politicians respond to FEC’s zombie campaigns action

Attention on former lawmakers continues to prompt change among Nelson, Ros-Lehtinen, Romney, Gutiérrez and more.

If pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered, then what happens to zombies who keep feeding at a toxic trough — even when they know they’re being watched?

After the FEC insisted 50 politicians explain why they still have active campaign accounts years after their careers and campaigning ended, some former lawmakers are changing their ways. Yet, others — some almost comically — are doubling-down on what they believe to be their right to exploit loopholes in campaign finance law to keep spending old donations on things that appear to subsidize their lives and new careers.

For instance, former Congressman Mark Foley, who has kept his account active and spending ever since he resigned from his South Florida seat in shame in 2006, set the Twitterverse aflame when his campaign told the FEC it was spending its funds in the Palm Beach social scene because he was gearing up for a possible comeback run in 2022.

(For what it’s worth, Twitter reaction ranged from “um, wut?” to “hell no.”)

But Foley’s long shot comeback wasn’t the most far-fetched legitimacy claim by a candidate running a zombie campaign.

Robin Tallon, a South Carolina Democrat who has been investing — and spending — from his campaign account for more than 26 years after retiring from an unremarkable decadelong Congressional run, told the FEC he kept his account open because federal law simply didn’t require him to close it.

For good measure, Tallon’s campaign also said his spending (which included travel, country club dues, expensive meals, electronics, and unidentified self-reimbursements) was legal because he was still considering a return to office, even though South Carolina is not nearly as friendly to Democrats as it was in 1982, when he was first elected to office.

Seeking quick closure

Just one day after Florida Politics exposed former Miami Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen spending campaign cash in her final months in-office on expensive events, meals, and trips, including what appeared to be a family vacation to Disneyworld, she filed to close her committee.

When the veteran Republican lawmaker left office in January, she shifted her leftover funds to a political action committee that she controlled, IRL PAC. Even though the PAC was registered as a multicandidate committee, it does not appear to have supported any candidates or conducted any fundraising activity since she left office.

According to a quarterly report just filed last week, the final dollars in Ros-Lehtinen’s account went to her longtime chief of staff, Maytee Sanz, who collected a total of $5,205 from the PAC in the first half of 2019, plus $791 for an unidentified reimbursement. Neither Ros-Lehtinen nor her treasurer agreed to elaborate on any of the spending.

The value of a zombie campaign

The FEC asked Mitt Romney why his old presidential account was active and spending nearly seven years after his run for the White House ended, longer than any other presidential campaign in history; the response offers insight as to how some zombie campaigns can stay alive indefinitely.

“The residual balance and questioned disbursements are all due to ongoing income received by the Committee for the rental of its donor list (a total of $227,355.92 from January 1, 2017, through March 31, 2019),” wrote campaign treasurer Bradley Crate. “As the authorized Committee of the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, the Committee’s list is still in demand.”

In addition to creating enough annual revenue to feed a family of 12, Romney’s campaign can avoid turning its assets, such as mailing lists, over to other political groups that may share them with political rivals within the GOP, such as President Donald Trump.

Getting the hint

Even some former Congressmembers who may have flown under the radar in this round of FEC inquiries seem to have gotten the message about personal use.

Chicago Democrat Luis Gutiérrez issued nearly $2,200 in personal reimbursements to his campaign this spring for charges that didn’t appear to be related to campaigning or his 26-year-career in Congress; the questionable campaign expenses included airfare, meals, car washes, and $85 for enrollment in TSA PreCheck. His campaign also made purchases at Marshall’s, the Fullerton Hotel in Singapore, and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok.

A million recount bucks

Former Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who was edged out of his seat last November by Florida’s term-limited governor, Rick Scott, raised so much money after the election for recount expenses that he still had more than $1 million on-hand when he left office in January.

Federal law only allowed those funds to be used for recounts, but the FEC issued an advisory opinion in March that stated the money could also be used for charitable purposes.

Nelson’s treasurer, Peggy Gagnon, suggests the campaign account will not enter zombieland, instead supporting the Nelson Initiative for Ethics and Leadership, held at the University of Florida. The organization’s first forum, held on July 2, featured Nelson and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio discussing their years of collaboration across party lines.

It’s unclear how or when Nelson will close his campaign account.

The need for zombie legislation

Washington watchdogs say the increased FEC scrutiny is a good first step to ending zombie campaigns, but Congressional action is needed to “drain the swamp” of the worst abusers, which come from both major parties.

While the House included a zombie ban as part of its wide-ranging H.R. 1 ethics and elections reform bill it approved earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the bill was dead upon arrival in his chamber, for many of the bill’s controversial measures were non-starters among Republicans.

So the fate of zombie campaigns rests in a bipartisan, stand-alone bill that — so far — has failed to get a hearing in the Committee on House Administration. But there’s still hope for the proposed legislation, co-sponsored by Congresswoman Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, and Congressman Gus Bilirakis, a Tarpon Springs Republican.

Committee chairperson Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, said she is starting to take up pieces of H.R. 1 that had bipartisan support. The first component was a bill she sponsored, securing and replacing outdated elections infrastructure.

“I anticipate the House will continue to pass similar provisions of H.R. 1,” Lofgren said, “to put power back in the hands of the American people by ending the dominance of big money in politics, making it easier — not harder — to vote, and ensuring that politicians actually serve the public interest.”

Ending big money in politics may be a tough sell as long as McConnell is holding the gavel in the Senate. However, it’s the small-money abuses, previously unnoticed by the FEC, that Congress could eliminate with the passage of a zombie campaigns bill.

Written By

Noah Pransky is a multiple award-winning investigative reporter, most recently with the CBS affiliate in Tampa. He’s uncovered major stories such as uncovering backroom deals in the Tampa Bay Rays stadium and other political investigations. Pransky also ran a blog called Shadow of the Stadium, giving readers a deep dive into the details of potential financial deals and other happenings involving the Tampa Bay- area sports business.

Sign up for Sunburn

Receive our team's agenda-setting morning read of what's hot in Florida politics. Delivered straight to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

Publisher: Peter Schorsch

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Jim Rosica, A.G. Gancarski, Joe Henderson, Janelle Irwin, Dan McAuliffe, Jacob Ogles, Scott Powers, Bob Sparks, Andrew Wilson.
Email: Peter@FloridaPolitics.com
Phone: (727) 642-3162
Address: 204 37th Avenue North #182
St. Petersburg, Florida 33704

Connect
Sign up for Sunburn

Receive our team's agenda-setting morning read of what's hot in Florida politics. Delivered straight to your inbox Monday through Friday.