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FEC fails to opine on Tom Price zombie campaign issue

Partisan gridlock sustains the swamp in Washington.

The Federal Election Commission Thursday failed to come to agreement on an advisory opinion requested by former Health & Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who wants to convert a $1.7 million war chest left over from his old Congressional campaign to a new 501(c)4 political committee that would “publish research, presentations, and other publications concerning health and budget policy matters under Price’s name.”

That means the transaction remains in an enormous gray area of federal campaign law, where ambiguity has allowed hundreds of former politicians to exploit “zombie campaigns” for personal gain.

FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub, who recently criticized her colleagues for not cracking down on former lawmakers’ abuse of zombie campaigns, wanted the board to opine that Price’s proposed use of campaign funds would constitute an illegal personal use because his new social welfare organization would “act as a personal vehicle for Dr. Price to promote his ideas, personal brand, and reputation using campaign funds.”

Weintraub, the only Democrat on the commission, appeared to have the support of independent Stephen Walther, but not the board’s two Republicans, who did not believe the transfer would constitute personal use because Price would receive no direct compensation from the nonprofit organization.

All four of the FEC’s current commissioners were appointed by George W. Bush, but with two vacancies on the board and four votes needed for action, most votes typically fall along partisan lines and fail for a lack of unanimity; it’s left the agency ineffective — and largely irrelevant — in its duty to enforce campaign finance laws.

If one more FEC commissioner were to leave the board before another is appointed, the agency would be unable to issue penalties, opinions, audit approvals, or any other official actions at all.

The lack of an advisory opinion leaves Price able to convert his campaign funds to his new 501(c)4 organization and worry about the legal gray area later. But with FEC enforcement rare and a notoriously-gridlocked commission unlikely to change in the near future, the risk to the former Congressman is low.

His request for an advisory opinion came weeks after Florida Politics reported he spent nearly $20,000 from his campaign account on polling, a sign he was likely debating whether a comeback may be in his future plans.

Price served in Congress until President Donald Trump nominated him as HHS Secretary in 2017, but resigned the position later in the year after it was exposed he and his staff violated federal rules and wasted tax dollars by taking dozens of charter and military flights when commercial alternatives were available. He kept his campaign account open the entire time.

Watchdogs warn about the precedent the FEC is allowing.

“Price has a history of using leftover campaign money to advance his post-Congressional career, and the FEC (should) refuse his plan to transfer that money to his outside organization,” said Adav Noti, senior director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit group that filed a complaint in 2017 over Price’s post-Congressional spending. “The law allows candidates to give excess campaign funds to charity, but Price’s organization is not a charity.”

Price wouldn’t be the first former member of Congress to transfer zombie campaign funds to a 501(c)4 advocacy group; earlier this year, former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, rolled $750,000 of leftover campaign cash to a nonprofit social welfare group she helped launch, while former Republican U.S. Rep. Allen West did the same in 2013 with hundreds of thousands of dollars he had leftover from a failed reelection bid.

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.

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