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'Zombie Campaigns' Continue To Accrue Money, Years After Congressional Candidates Have Stopped Running

Published: Tuesday, December 22, 2020 - 1:08pm
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MARK BRODIE: Political candidates have to raise a lot of money to run for office, but not all campaigns spend all of that money during an election cycle. So what happens to that extra cash? According to a story written by my next guest, that money can sit in campaign accounts long after members of Congress have left the halls of the Capitol. Daniel Newhauser is a freelance political reporter based in D.C. He wrote about these so-called zombie campaigns for State's Newsroom, of which the Arizona Mirror is part. And he joins me to talk more about this. And Daniel, you chronicle several political campaigns that have been inactive for, in some cases, many years, but yet still have a bunch of money in their accounts. What did you find out about them?

DANIEL NEWHAUSER: Right, so there's really no hard regulation that governs how long it must take after a congressman leaves office to wind down the whole campaign apparatus. So in some cases, we've had these campaigns active for years, maybe even a decade or more, after the congressman is no longer in office. And in some cases they have, you know, a million, $2 million in the bank just sitting there, sometimes gaining interest through investments. And the [Federal Election Commission] FEC in recent years, following an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, has started cracking down on this a little bit. And by cracking down, I mean sending letters. Again, there's, there's not too much they can do barring egregious spending behavior by the campaign.

BRODIE: So with this money sitting in these accounts, you said in some cases it's accruing interest. Are there expenses still if a candidate is not actively campaigning for something?

NEWHAUSER: Absolutely. The most common expense that I see is storage. And I'll give you, I'll give you an example here in Phoenix. Ed Pastor, a distinguished member who served Arizona from 1991 until his retirement in 2015, his campaign still had about $97,000 in the bank and they've been paying about $1,500 per year for storage. The problem is Pastor died in 2018, so it's kind of hard to spin that as a legitimate campaign expense. So the FEC wrote him a letter. Well, not him I guess, but his campaign. And the campaign wrote back saying, "Well, you know, we've been trying to wind down the campaign. We're trying to figure it out with Pastor's widow. And, you know, you can expect us to win this down at some point soon." But again, if they just want to essentially keep paying for that storage until they run out of money, there's not too much the FEC can do about it.

BRODIE: So what is the advantage to a candidate and a campaign of doing this? I mean, I imagine if they decide they want to run again at some point, that's helpful to have some kind of money. But in the case of Congressman Pastor, he's clearly not running for anything.

NEWHAUSER: That's right. I guess the advantage is that they just don't have to go through the rigmarole of trying to actually wind down the campaign, you know, a process that, you know, you have to, you have to terminate the campaign. You have to figure out where all that money should go and donate it and so on and so forth. So there, it might just be, you know, laziness that's keeping people from doing this. Now, I will so — I will say in other cases, the benefit is that you may be able to spend some of this money in ways that on its face seem to be personal expenses. In Florida, there's a former congressman named Cliff Stearns. He pays his wife a $1,000 monthly fee to handle the accounting for the campaign, which doesn't, doesn't really exist anymore. And he also has used this campaign money, which was more than a million dollars, to invest and just in this last campaign cycle made, you know, almost $230,000. So the money doesn't just sit there. In some cases, it's actually accruing more money.

BRODIE: Well, so what are legitimate purposes for this money? Obviously, when a campaign and a candidate is done, they have some debts to pay off, they maybe have some outstanding expenses. But in a case like Congressman Pastor or any of the members of Congress that you outlined in your piece, what would be the appropriate thing to do with that money that's left in those accounts?

NEWHAUSER: Generally, when you wind down a campaign and you terminate your campaign committee and you still have money left over, you can either form a political action committee and donate all of the money you had in your campaign committee to the political action committee and then use that separate committee to make donations and so on and so forth. You know, and if somebody who is actually running or maybe actually still thinking about running — perhaps a candidate lost a primary but thinks, "You know, I'm going to come back next election cycle. I'm going to, I'm going to give it another go." Well, fair enough. You keep your campaign open. You keep your money in the bank. You keep paying campaign workers and you put all your yard signs in storage and you think, "I'm going to come back in two years." The kind of hard thing to square here is when there's a candidate that's been gone for a decade, or in the case of Ed Pastor who is dead, now for more than two years, and they still are paying these so-called campaign expenses.

BRODIE: So what do these campaigns or candidates, what do they say about the fact that, you know, there's tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars left in these accounts when it seems as though, at least in some cases, there's no plans to run for office again, and maybe there are some questionable expenses, maybe not. But what did you hear from, from either the candidates or the campaign committees?

NEWHAUSER: Well, they don't say much to the public. Now, what they do say is they have to write letters back to the FEC and that becomes, that becomes public. So say in the case of Cliff Stearns in Florida, he had lost in a primary to Ted Yoho, who is a congressman right now, but is only going to be a congressman until January because he said he would only serve four terms and now he's retiring. Now last year, Cliff Stearns said, "Well, you know, the congressman said he's only going to run four terms and he's retiring. And I might, I might run. So that's why I'm keeping this campaign still alive." Well, the primary came and passed and Cliff Stearns didn't run. Now, they say this year that they're going to start the process of shutting the campaign down and it's going to take a while, but bear with us.

BRODIE: Is it too harsh a term to call these slush funds?

NEWHAUSER: Well, they certainly have been criticized as slush funds. You know, I mean, not everybody uses it that way. Some people just donate to charity or donate to other candidates. But if you have an account that is ostensibly a campaign account and you in actuality have no intention of running for Congress ever again, and that money is just sitting there gaining interest based on investments, and then you spend that money on administrative things like maybe Internet plan or a phone bill or you pay your own wife to do your accounting, then, you know, it just becomes a little bit hard to justify how these are legitimate campaign accounts.

BRODIE: All right. That is Daniel Newhauser, a freelance political reporter based in Washington, D.C. Daniel, nice to talk to you. Thank you.

NEWHAUSER: Hey, anytime. Thank you. 

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