It costs a lot of money to run a congressional campaign, and it takes a lot of gall to keep spending campaign cash years after leaving office. That’s exactly what many former lawmakers and candidates have done, shamelessly using leftover campaign contributions to pay expenses that have nothing to do with campaigning. The practice, which has been ignored by federal elections officials, is indefensible and should be halted.
"Zombie Campaigns," an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, 10News WTSP and TEGNA-owned TV stations, found roughly 100 cases where campaign spending continued long after an official left office. The "zombie campaigns" ran through more than $20 million since 1995, reporters found.
What did the money pay for? High-priced goodies such as football tickets, travel, club memberships, expensive meals and new computers. The funds also went to recurring expenses such as cellphones, postage, rent on office space and Internet service that can be reasonably justified by a candidate who is actually running for office. But eight defunct campaigns paid a combined $55,000 to rent office space, the investigation found, and 21 spent more than $53,000 on cellphone bills. That doesn’t pass the smell test.
Florida is well-represented on the list. Remember Mark Foley? The former six-term congressman resigned in 2006 amid a scandal over sending sexually explicit messages to an underage congressional page. His campaign was still cutting checks last year. The expenditures included advertising, travel and a membership at the Palm Beach Opera.
Cliff Stearns represented the Gainesville area in the U.S. House from 1989 until he was ousted in the 2012 Republican primary amid the tea party wave. His campaign has spent nearly $125,000 since then, including $5,000 in payments to his wife, $3,300 for meals, dues and fundraisers at the Capitol Hill Club in Tallahassee and $3,550 in credit card payments. (He repaid some money in January after a complaint to the Federal Election Commission.)
Not even death stops the spending. The reporters found eight campaigns that kept writing checks after the candidate died. Other ex-lawmakers who forged new careers as lobbyists used their leftover money to benefit their lobbying clients. Said one watchdog: "It’s the kind of abuse that people only perpetrate when they’re sure nobody is watching and they can get away with anything."
Nobody is, so they can.
The FEC has not investigated any of the spending documented in the report. Its rules prohibit using campaign funds for personal use, but they are vague on what that means. Prohibiting specific expenditures would make abuses easier to spot. Ethics experts say unused campaign funds should be donated to charity or another political campaign — not spent on, say, iPads and plane tickets. And Congress should set a reasonable time limit for how long campaigns can remain open after members leave office, preventing them from becoming slush funds in perpetuity.
This kind of activity, which flouts the spirit of campaign finance laws, exemplifies what Americans detest about Washington. Campaign spending that continues long after a candidate leaves politics is dubious in any light. That the money is used in such self-serving ways, with no repercussions, just compounds the insult. Congress and the FEC should take serious action, recognizing that doing nothing further degrades the democratic process and sours the public’s faith.