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‘We need to fix it’: Watchdogs, lawmakers try to halt Zombie Campaign spending

By Christopher O'Donnell and Noah Pransky, Tampa Bay Times, published Feb. 5, 2018

A Washington D.C. watchdog group and a Tampa congresswoman are pushing to close a loophole that has allowed ex-politicians to keep spending campaign donations years after leaving office.

The Campaign Legal Center filed a petition with the Federal Elections Commission Monday calling for stricter rules on how former lawmakers spend leftover campaign money.

The CLC cited an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times/10News WTSP and TEGNA-owned TV stations that uncovered former politicians and their staffers hoarding unspent campaign donations for years and using them to finance their lifestyles, advance new careers and pay family members. Some campaigns continued spending after the lawmaker died.

The reporting showed “the appearance or reality of dozens of former officeholders using their campaign accounts as slush funds, or to continue paying for expenses that may have been permissible during their time in office but ceased to be so after they left office,” the petition says.

It asks the FEC to clarify that such spending is not allowed.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, told the Times/WTSP that she is drafting a bill to “rein this in.”

“If they’re dead, they’re a lobbyist, they’ve been out of the Congress for many years they should not be able to tap their campaign funds for their personal expenses or their lobbying expenses,” Castor said.

She said there should be a time limit on how long campaigns are allowed to remain open, and lawmakers should not be allowed to pay family members after they leave office.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, said he would support a bill placing more restrictions on spending once out of office.

“I think it’s remarkable some would have campaign funds open that long and some even after individuals are deceased,” he said. “It strikes me as wrong and we need to fix it.”

Other members of Florida’s congressional delegation did not return calls and emails seeking comment.

The petition calls on the FEC to specify what costs former lawmakers can expense with campaign donations. It also asks the agency to place a time limit on how long campaign accounts can remain open.

The current law allows ex-lawmakers and losing candidates to keep their campaigns running forever, even if they never re-enter politics.

It states that donations should be spent on campaigning and the cost of being in office. They can also be refunded to donors or given away to other candidates, political committees or charities.

But the Times/WTSP investigation, called “Zombie Campaigns,” identified more than 100 campaigns that carried on spending at least two years after their candidate left office. In 20 cases, the campaigns stayed open for more than a decade.

The investigation found retired lawmakers buying airline tickets, club memberships, a limo trip, parking and new computers, among other items. It also found spending on campaign expenses like cell phones, utilities, office rent and internet services, even though the candidate was no longer campaigning.

“There’s not just one or two former Congress members out there breaking the law,” said Adav Noti, a former attorney for the FEC who is now a senior director at the Campaign Legal Center. “There seems to be widespread sense that the rules do not cover activity once the politicians are out of office.”

FEC officials declined to comment on the petition.

Under agency rules, commissioners will now decide whether to conduct a hearing on the CLC’s petition, which would include allowing the public and other parties time to comment.

It could also make a recommendation to Congress to pass legislation to tackle the issue.