I t’s been more than a decade since South Florida Rep. Mark Foley was forced out of Congress for sending sexual text messages to teenage boys.
But Foley tapped his congressional campaign fund to dine on the Palm Beach social circuit four times in early 2017, ending with a $450 luncheon at the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches.
Then there’s baseball-star-turned-senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky. He paid his daughter $94,800 from campaign money in the four years after he left office, only stopping when he’d bled his fund dry.
And over the past 17 months, political advisor Dylan Beesley paid his firm more than $100,000 from the campaign account of Hawaii Congressman Mark Takai for “consulting services.”
It’s hard to imagine what Beesley advised. Takai was dead that whole time.
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, an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, 10News WTSP and TEGNA-owned TV stations found.
Their spending makes a mockery of one of the fundamental principles of America’s campaign finance laws: Donations must be spent only on politics, not politicians’ personal lives.
Times/WTSP reporters analyzed more than 1 million records detailing the spending of former U.S. lawmakers and federal candidates. They found roughly 100 of these zombie campaigns, still spending even though their candidate’s political career had been laid to rest.
Of course, history is full of politicians stretching the definition of legitimate campaign expenses. But most of those cases at least involved a campaign of some sort.
By contrast, former Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, had been out of office for more than three years when he spent $4,555 on Ohio State football tickets. Former Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, rented office space from his father’s hardware company for $9,600 and paid his wife almost $22,000 to handle paperwork in the six years after he left office.
Other ex-candidates spent leftover donations on airline tickets, club memberships, a limo trip, cell phones, parking and new computers, the investigation found. Some former lawmakers paid themselves thousands of dollars without providing any explanation for where the money went. One spent $940 at Total Wine.
They weren’t all low-profile political figures. Former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, still has an active presidential campaign account that he used to pay almost $16,170 to his daughter through 2017, five years after he last sought office.
Former U.S. representative, R-Texas
None of the spending was formally investigated by the Federal Election Commission, which is responsible for stopping federal candidates from treating their campaigns like personal slush funds.
By law, 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 law doesn’t stop ex-lawmakers and losing candidates from keeping their campaigns running forever, even if they never re-enter politics.
Twenty of the campaigns identified by the Times/WTSP stayed active for more than a decade. Eight kept on spending even after the candidate they were supposedly working to elect had died — buying lavish dinners, paying cell phone bills and writing rent checks.
Six campaign finance experts told Times/WTSP reporters that some of the zombie campaign spending was a potential election-law violation that should have been investigated by the FEC.
“There’s just no legitimate explanation for that, and it’s just outrageous,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “It’s the kind of abuse that people only perpetrate when they’re sure nobody is watching and they can get away with anything.”
Times/WTSP reporters requested interviews with all five FEC commissioners. Only two responded. They both declined.
FEC spokesman Christian Hilland said the agency cannot comment on individual cases that may end up under investigation in the future.
“There are personal use prohibitions,” Hilland said. “Outside of that, if there are still costs associated with a campaign, utilities or a lease on a building – that can still be paid.”
Confronted about their spending, most candidates said they kept their accounts open in case they ran again one day, and they disputed that the money benefitted them personally.
Several said they would consider shutting their campaigns down. Many didn’t return requests for comment. Two fled when questioned about their spending by reporters from the Times/WTSP and TEGNA-owned partner TV stations around the country.
Foley, the former Palm Beach congressman, said ethical lines are “in the eye of the beholder,” but added that the FEC doesn’t draw lines or provide guidance.
Campaign experts said that while FEC rules are vague, it’s clear that someone out of politics should not have expenses that come with campaigning.
“It’s hard to imagine how some of this is not illegal,” said Larry Noble, a former FEC attorney and senior director of ethics for the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center. “If you’re not in office and you aren’t running, there aren’t a lot of expenditures you should be having.”
If anyone demonstrates how much former lawmakers can get away with, it’s Robin Tallon Jr.
The South Carolina Democrat left the House of Representatives in January 1993, just as Bill Clinton was entering the White House, to set himself up as a D.C. lobbyist.
Tallon was hardly an influential lawmaker. He was primary sponsor of only two bills that became law, according to govtrack.us. One was to designate National Tourism Week.
But his decade in Congress left him with more than $400,000 in his campaign account. He kept it open, then invested the money, turning it into $1 million.
In 2005, Tallon embarked on a spending spree that is still ongoing.
It included more than $31,000 in “reimbursements” paid to himself without any explanation, federal records show. Another $20,000 was paid to his son, Robert Tallon III, who was listed as campaign treasurer.
Tallon’s campaign bought a $4,000 computer in 2007, a $2,300 computer in 2014 and a $900 iPad in 2017.
Since Tallon was no longer campaigning, some of his spending looks like personal use of campaign funds, said Adav Noti, a former attorney for the FEC who is now a senior director at the Campaign Legal Center.
“It’s almost inconceivable that spending is legal,” Noti said. “That’s 25 years after he left office.”
Some of Tallon’s other expenditures are even harder to tie to politics. Between 2007 and 2011, he paid roughly $8,200 in “dues” to an organization he identified only as “CCSC.”
There are no major political groups or charitable organizations in South Carolina with those initials. Despite FEC rules, Tallon’s reports don’t list an address for the recipient. Tallon does, however, live in a 4,400-square-foot home in a development with the same initials: the Country Club of South Carolina.
Those payments from Tallon are in line with the Florence, S.C. club’s $300 monthly membership dues and food minimum total.
In a phone interview, Tallon defended keeping his campaign account open, saying he always considered another potential run. The iPad was to do his campaign’s paperwork and to keep up with its investments — which would be the only legal use of the device, since it was bought with campaign money, experts said.
Tallon did not return subsequent calls or respond to a letter asking about his “CCSC” spending. He kicked a camera crew from WTSP partner station WCNC off his property last week.
Still, in the earlier interview, the 71-year-old conceded that after being out of office for a quarter of a century, it’s probably time to shut the campaign down.
“I don't think the likelihood of (running for office) is very high right now, and I’m retiring from my consulting work in Washington,” he said in November. “I need to give that money away at this point.”
He filed his latest campaign report on Jan. 16. It shows his campaign is still open.
The laws on campaign spending are simple if vague.
The money cannot be used for costs unrelated to campaigning or serving in office.
Items like clothing, country club fees and groceries, for example, are prohibited. Campaign workers’ salaries, office space, cell phones and internet service are allowed, when used for campaign purposes.
But the rules barely address what is permitted once a politician leaves office.
Former U.S. Senator, R-Florida
It would be easy for the FEC to find campaigns exploiting that loophole.
Times/WTSP reporters used the FEC’s own data to identify roughly 100 zombie campaigns that have spent more than $20 million since 1995.
The Times included campaigns that kept spending more than six months after the candidate died. For the other campaigns, the analysis didn’t consider spending in the first two years to give candidates time to get out of leases, cell phone contracts and other commitments.
That’s far longer than candidates should need. A 2013 FEC advisory opinion said outgoing politicians should wind down campaign expenses within six months. Former independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., both donated more than 90 percent of their money to charity and closed their campaigns within a year of leaving office.
Four campaigns each spent more than $1,500 buying new computers, including Foley’s, which bought a $1,600 computer in 2015. Experts said that would be legal only if the computers were used solely for campaign paperwork.
FEC rules allow payments to family members who do genuine work for a campaign as long as they are paid at “market rate.”
But the payments vary wildly. Bunning’s campaign paid his daughter more than $2,100 per month. Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., paid his spouse just $300 per month for bookkeeping and filing FEC forms.
Other spending makes even less sense when out of office.
Thirty-nine spent $246,000 combined hosting or attending events, including the unveiling of a portrait and tickets for their spouses to attend a First Lady’s Luncheon.
Fifty-one of the zombie candidates had an extra incentive to hang onto campaign cash: they went into the lobbying industry.
Campaigns are allowed to give to other candidates and PACs, even if those donations could buy influence that benefits their clients.
Their campaigns donated almost $4.5 million to political candidates and causes, the Times/WTSP analysis found.
Tallon was one of them. His campaign donated $69,000 to political causes — including tens of thousands of the dollars he raised as a Democrat to Republican politicians — and paid roughly $750 in dues to the Capitol Hill Club, a private social club for D.C. Republicans. In 2009 he also gave $5,000 to a political action committee formed by Imperial Tobacco Group, a client of his lobbying firm.
Former Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Ala., donated almost $340,000 after becoming chairman of a lobbying firm. Former Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, admitted that some of the $60,000 he donated was “absolutely” helpful in his lobbying career.
“It’s the way it is, whether you have a political fund or whether you were a private citizen writing checks out of your own account,” he said.
If FEC rules are vague about candidates who retire, they say even less about what should happen to campaign funds when the candidate dies.
Asked about dead candidates’ spending, FEC officials admitted their analysts could review a campaign’s report without ever realizing that the candidate is dead.
That might explain why they never questioned the spending of former New York congressman Thomas J. Manton’s campaign, which paid his treasurer a salary for two years after Manton died.
Takai’s campaign stopped doing almost everything after the Hawaii congressman died in July 2016 — except paying one man.
That was Beesley, 29, who had been the Democrat’s chief strategist since March 2015. A former legislative assistant to Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Beesley also worked as Hawaii State Director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Two months after Takai’s death, paperwork filed with the FEC identified Beesley as the campaign’s treasurer, which meant he had control over its checkbook.
In the 17 months since Takai’s death, Beesley paid roughly $5,700 a month to Lanakila Strategies, his own consulting firm.
Beesley’s most recent payments, reported in January, brought the total paid to Lanakila to more than $100,000, or 70 percent of Takai’s posthumous campaign spending.
“Wow,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., one of Takai’s friends in Congress, when told of Beesley’s spending. “I don't know if Mark would really want to see that happening with the money he raised to run for re-election.”
The Times/WTSP, in partnership with Honolulu affiliate KGMB/KHNL, began pressing Beesley for answers in early January.
Three days later, the Honolulu Star Advertiser reported on Beesley’s payments. The Campaign Legal Center then filed a complaint with the FEC, which is pending.
In a written statement, Beesley said he was paid to be the campaign’s treasurer.
He also released a statement that he said was attributable to a spokesman for Takai’s family. “Dylan Beesley supported Mark’s campaign before Mark’s passing and, at our request, has stayed on as campaign treasurer to help manage the campaigns affairs,” the statement said. “He has worked to help us to focus on the next steps so that we could close the campaign down and create a foundation in Mark’s name and use it for good causes here in Hawaii. Payments to him during this period were authorized.”
Takai’s family did not respond to a letter sent by the Times/WTSP seeking comment.
The Mark Takai Foundation wasn’t incorporated until Jan. 11, Hawaii state business records show — two days after KGMB/KHNL contacted Beesley about his spending and 16 months after he became treasurer of the campaign.
Many campaign treasurers are paid to file campaign reports with the FEC. But Takai’s campaign was paying $500 per month to CFO Compliance, a national group that specializes in campaign paperwork.
Beesley declined multiple requests for an interview.
Noble, the former FEC attorney and CLC ethics director, said the FEC should investigate Beesley’s spending.
“I’ve not heard of a situation where, after the death of the office holder or candidate, that the committee keeps on paying people,” Noble said. “He can’t keep it going indefinitely while he spends money on himself.”
One easy way to stop former lawmakers from misspending campaign money would be for Congress to set a time limit for how long zombie campaigns can remain open.
But the FEC’s Democratic and Republican commissioners, who can recommend new rules to Congress, almost never agree. In 2016, the commission deadlocked on one-third of enforcement votes.
“The FEC was designed to gridlock,” said Meredith McGeehee, executive director of Issue One, a nonpartisan political reform group.
Former U.S. Senator, R-Georgia
In Congress, the few attempts to address these campaigns have stalled. Lawmakers are reluctant to put additional restrictions on themselves, said Noti, the former FEC attorney.
Rep. Takano, the California Democrat, filed the “Let It Go” act in both 2015 and 2017 requiring outgoing members to close their campaign accounts within six years or before they go into lobbying.
And Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., filed a bill four times between 2007 and 2015 that would have let lawmakers designate a family member to take over their campaign accounts once they die.
Takano’s bill didn't get a hearing. Jones’ passed the House three times, then died in the Senate.
Jones said current House Speaker Paul Ryan and other lawmakers have no interest in campaign finance reform.
“Too many people like the system the way it is,” Jones said in an interview.
Ryan’s spokeswoman did not provide a comment.
The FEC was created to oversee campaign spending in 1975, after Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign paid for the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex.
But Congress doesn’t fund the agency very well, experts say. After adjusting for inflation, its $76 million annual budget is smaller than it was in 2010. Last year, it had just 34 analysts to review more than 26 million financial transactions.
Former U.S. Representative, D-Texas
Former candidates are especially likely to escape scrutiny since they do not have political opponents to challenge their spending. The FEC almost never catches questionable spending itself. All but eight of the FEC’s 128 closed investigations last year started with an outside complaint.
FEC analysts are also told to ignore suspicious spending unless the amount of money or number of transactions raises above a secret threshold, which the agency refuses to disclose, documents show.
“There is really not a lot of incentive for this agency to go off and start snooping and investigating current members, much less former members,” McGehee said. “It does not have a robust investigatory arm. That’s not how the agency was designed.”
Nonetheless, zombie campaigns have occasionally come to the agency’s attention.
Every time, the agency did nothing, and the campaign carried on.
Eight campaigns identified by the Times/WTSP sent the FEC paperwork stating that they were not running for office, then continued spending for years, FEC documents show. Six are still open.
In July 2011, former Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher’s treasurer informed the FEC in writing that “the candidate has no intention of seeking office in future election cycles.” By then, the Democrat was already working for law firm Sidley Austin.
But Boucher, who did not return calls or emails for comment, kept on spending. Since 2013, he has paid $33,000 to staffers for “reimbursements” and “contract labor,” and spent nearly $4,900 on cell phone bills, office supplies, internet services and postage. His campaign account is still open.
In 2010, the FEC wrote to former Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell warning that the $2,000 per month he was paying his daughter-in-law, Karen Allard Campbell, could “possibly constitute personal use of the committee's campaign funds.”
At that point, Campbell had been out of office for five years, and paying her for the past four.
His campaign treasurer responded on a letterhead that still touted Campbell as “U.S. Senator for Colorado.” It said Karen Campbell was providing the campaign “bona fide” services, including preparing its tax forms.
At the time, the Republican was also paying outside firms to do “tax preparation,” campaign finance records show.
The FEC let the matter drop, and the checks to his daughter-in-law kept coming for another five years. Campbell declined requests for an interview.
If the law doesn’t change, there will likely be more cases like his.
Since 2016, more than 40 House and Senate incumbents have resigned or announced they will not run in the 2018 midterm election.
The soon-to-be ex-politicians are sitting on more than $55 million in campaign donations.
This story was updated Feb. 1, 2018 to update the amount of money donated by candidates who had moved on to a new career in the lobbying industry.
To identify zombie campaigns, Times/WTSP reporters used the Federal Election Commission’s API to download more than 1 million disbursement records, ranging from the earliest records in the FEC’s database up to the third quarter of 2017.
Then reporters ranked each campaign by the number of expenditures it made after the campaign’s final election cycle. Then reporters hand-reviewed more than 350 campaigns’ spending.
Reporters excluded campaigns that had too few expenditures and campaigns paying back old debt. They then categorized more than 10,000 rows of data by type of spending. The entire database is available online at tampabay.com/zombiedatabase.
The reporters did not include data within two years of a campaign's last election or the last time a politician held office. This was to give campaigns ample time to pay off debts, get out of leases and end other contracts. They also removed records that did not have a date, and did not tag tax payments, refunds, negative amounts or disgorgements. They categorized payments according to the campaign’s listed disbursement description.
The database also includes former politicians who moved onto new careers as lobbyists, employees of lobbying firms or employees of private companies working in lobbying roles. The reporters searched the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Open Secrets’ Revolving Door database and news articles to look for signs that a former candidate had taken work representing special interests, whether or not they formally registered as a lobbyist. Donations from their campaigns are included in the database. About 20 of the 102 zombie campaigns were primarily identified based on this criteria.
Some data from the FEC API was incomplete, missing fields like dates, amounts, recipient names or descriptions for the disbursements. Whenever possible, reporters corrected inaccurate data based on the original paper filings.