There have been attempts to create councils out of a deceased politician’s campaign money. In 2012, the FEC issued an advisory opinion that allowed Rep. Tom Lantos’ campaign committee to donate its remaining funds to a foundation that bore his name and employed his daughter and others who worked for Lantos, years after his death. The committee proposed that the family and former employees of Lantos not be compensated or reimbursed with these funds.
Sense. Michael Benet (D-Colo.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced legislation that would require politicians to close their campaign accounts within six months in the event the person does not file for federal office in the next election. It would also prevent the candidate from donating that money to a charity where the politician or his family is employed.
“These so-called zombie accounts are fueling the pay-to-play culture in Washington that is corroding the American people’s trust in our government,” Bennett said in a statement. “If we could pass bills like the ZOMBIE Act, we could begin to restore public confidence in our government.”
Currently, the FEC doesn’t seem to be doing much to police these persistent campaign accounts, nor does their mere existence seem to violate any of its rules. The agency considers expenses incurred within six months of a legislator’s departure to end office to be “ordinary and necessary expenses.” But the semester schedule is somewhat meaningless. A 2013 advisory opinion from the agency added that expenses beyond that six-month period could also be considered “ordinary and necessary liquidation expenses”.
The campaign account of former Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who died in 2020, still contains $337,995.24 at the end of 2021; while there was $62,610.75 in Lewis PAC’s leadership, House Majority Fund, as of January 31. The committee of Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who died in April, had $30,925.82 in his campaign committee at the end of 2021 and $8,763.65 in his leadership PAC. The account of Senator Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia who died in December, still contained $389,961.00 at the end of the year. Isakson’s executive PAC, 21st Century Majority Fund, brought in an additional $179,190.93.
Stephanie Jones, president of Campaign Consulting Group, said remaining funds from Isakson’s campaign committee would go to the Isakson Initiative, a fundraising and awareness effort for neurocognitive diseases (Isakson was diagnosed with Parkinson before his death). His company received $18,819.72 from Isakson’s two accounts in the last quarter of 2021 – two of those payments coming days after the former senator died.
In other cases, deceased candidates left behind committees with outstanding compliance issues or unresolved IOUs. The account of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who died in 2019, for example, still has about $21,000 in debt and unpaid obligations.
And then there is Herman Cain. His 2012 presidential campaign committee, Friends of Herman Cain Inc., reported $19,799.47 in debt owed for legal fees and fundraising processing fees in an April 2020 filing. Cain died of Covid in July 2020. But it is unclear if his debts have since been resolved. The FEC sent six requests for additional information to the committee.
The committee’s treasurer, former Cain chief of staff Mark Block, apparently did not respond. Known for the infamous campaign ad, in which he casually smoked a cigarette, Block is now the managing director of Mother Nature’s Trading Company, which claims to be the “leading provider of unique cranberry seed oil and extract products.” of hemp”. He faced allegations that a group he led contributed tens of thousands of dollars in potentially illegal gifts to Cain’s campaign. He did not return a request for comment.
In 2014, Block and the campaign settled a case with the FEC regarding $186,871.98 in prohibited, excessive, and other ineligible contributions that were not timely corrected. They agreed to pay a civil fine of $19,000.
The fundraising committee treasurer is responsible for any remaining funds or debt in a given account once the candidate has passed, and similar to an executor, the treasurer can determine what the account spends its money on.
“Political committees are [standalone] — self-contained societies…separate from the humans who created them,” said Paul Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at watchdog group Common Cause. “Although it is entirely fair to consider them the alter ego, in the case of candidate committees, … from a legal point of view, they continue to exist even in the event of the death of the candidate or the owner who created them.”
Several post-mortem committee representatives did not return a request for comment. Vickie Winpisinger, an FEC compliance consultant who is treasurer of Lewis’ campaign and leadership PAC accounts — as well as a host of other Democrat-affiliated committees — said it’s still unclear how Lewis’ remaining campaign funds would be used. She said she believed there were plans to hire a company to organize and preserve the congressman’s art, archives or documents.
“I’ve been trying to get them to do something for a while, but clearly they have to do something soon,” Winpisinger told POLITICO. She doubted that the money “lingers forever”.
Expenses made by Lewis’s campaign since his death include $14,000 for communications consultancy, as well as tens of thousands of dollars for various consultants to help end the campaign, according to FEC records. The committee also transferred $2.5 million to the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation as well as $100,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
A number of former staff also appear to have been paid by the committee. Michael Collins, the name of Lewis’ former chief of staff, received $15,000 for the end of services, as well as $10,000 for Ruth Riley, the name of his longtime planner, and $10,000 for Jamila Thompson, the name of its former deputy chief. Staff. Winpisinger did not return a request for comment on the expenses to former aides.
Some campaign committees owned by deceased politicians take their time spending their cash reserves. The committee of Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Arizona), who died in 2018, just donated the remainder of its funds in 2021 to, among other things, various Arizona-based charities (although the FEC still considers the account active ).
Zombie accounts, or those that continue after a candidate withdraws or loses an election, are not a new phenomenon. In fact, a blockbuster 2018 investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, 10News WTSP, and TEGNA-owned TV stations uncovered about 100 such cases. Of the deceased former congressmen named in the story, one – Mark Takai of Hawaii – still has an active campaign account with a small amount of money, nearly six years after his death.
Christian Hilland, assistant press secretary at the FEC, said the committees cannot stop filing their reports “until they have extinguished outstanding debts and loans, indicated their plans for residual funds balances and have filed a termination report”.
But it’s clear in the case of Cain’s campaign and others that the federal agency has struggled to track down committees that don’t meet those standards. Former presidential candidate Mike Gravel’s campaign account — the Peace, Justice and Mike Gravel Committee — disbursed all but approximately $7,500 in campaign funds as of the end of March 2021. The former senator of Alaska passed away in June. And the committee did not file another report with the FEC, despite the agency’s repeated requests for additional information.