Tracking political donations into zombie land
By DIANE DIMOND
Are you among the countless Americans who feel so passionately about the upcoming presidential election that you wrote a check to your favorite candidate? But if your candidate dropped out of the race, can you get your money back?
At one time, there were a whopping 29 Democrats running for president . Now only 12 remain. Collectively, those candidates amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in donations — some from large contributors like corporations, some from political action committees and many from small individual contributors, maybe just like you.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign raised almost $80 million, but he dropped out of the race in November 2019, and now the Federal Election Commission reports O’Rourke still had some $3.2 million in cash left unused.
Sen. Kamala Harris raised about $35 million in her unsuccessful presidential bid. The latest Federal Election Commission filings show she’s got about $10 million stashed.
Sen. Cory Booker fell out of the race earlier this month after raising almost $19 million. He still has $5 million in his campaign account. So, will any of these loser candidates give money back to disappointed donors? They can, but I doubt they will.
Legally, politicians who are still in office can choose to do all sorts of things with campaign contributions. They aren’t allowed to use the money for personal expenses, like mortgages, clothing or groceries, but Federal Election Commission regulations state they can simply transfer surplus funds to their Senate or House campaign coffers. Or they can donate the money to charity, give it to their party or give it to another candidate. They are not required to give you your money back.
One really troublesome, and sometimes criminal, aspect of what happens to these leftover funds comes when a politician retires or is voted out of office. A defeated candidate can simply claim they plan to run for office again one day and keep the slush fund. A retired politician can claim they need the money to wind down their official business, which the Federal Election Commission says should take about six months. But lawmakers who have been out of office for many years have continued to tap their still-flush campaign war chests. These are called “zombie campaigns.” The campaigns are dead; the former candidate just won’t admit it.
A major investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and its affiliated TV stations across the country revealed the blatant way in which more than 100 zombie campaigns spent these leftover monies. The newspaper analyzed more than 1 million spending records and concluded that although the Federal Election Commission has prosecutorial power, it is a body that does little to follow up on unauthorized use of campaign reserves. And the Commission does not challenge defeated politicians who conveniently leave open the possibility of another run for office.
“In their political afterlife, former politicians and their staffers are hoarding unspent campaign donations for years and using them to finance their lifestyles, advance new careers and pay family members,” the investigative article reported. “Ex-candidates spent leftover donations on airline tickets, club memberships, a limo trip, cell phones, parking and new computers … Some former lawmakers paid themselves thousands of dollars without providing any explanation for where the money went.”
One former politician spent $940 at a store called Total Wine. Other purchases included football tickets and an expensive portrait. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent on questionable travel. In Hawaii, the campaign treasurer for Rep. Mark Takai paid his own consulting firm $100,000 for 18 months — after the candidate had died. New York Rep. Thomas Manton retired in 1999 and died in 2006, yet his treasurer drew a salary until 2008.
There’s one more way your political donation can end up in a place you never intended. The Tampa Bay Times investigation discovered 51 of the zombie candidates became lobbyists and donated almost $4.5 million dollars of their slush fund monies to friendly politicos and causes.
These are the dirty little secrets of what happens to multimillions of dollars in campaign donations. The only way this insidious practice changes is if Congress sets a time limit for how long zombie campaigns can live. Do you think Congress will restrict the actions of its outgoing members? It’s highly unlikely — so remember that when making a political donation.