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Cole: NRCC Debt Neared $19 Million

As the National Republican Congressional Committee last week released the first details of the accounting scandal involving former Treasurer Christopher Ward, the committee’s top official also asserted for the first time that the debt left over from the 2006 elections was actually in the range of $19 million.

NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) had previously said that the committee’s debt from last cycle was about $16 million, even though the highest amount reported to the Federal Election Commission was $14.5 million.

But on Friday, Cole told Roll Call that the debt was somewhere between $18 million and $19 million, an increase mostly due to vendor bills for services rendered during the 2006 cycle that trickled in over the first few months of 2007. In some instances, there were discrepancies between what the NRCC thought it owed vendors and the actual bills. Cole said those differences were generally not major but are being looked at as part of the NRCC’s internal investigation surrounding Ward.

The increased debt is not directly tied to Ward’s alleged actions — which included submitting faked committee audits over a five-year period and funnelling hundreds of thousands of dollars out of the NRCC coffers to his personal and business bank accounts. The FBI is investigating those allegations.

But the higher debt figure does reveal how money was leaving the committee late in the 2006 election cycle — as Republicans were attempting to save seats and hold onto their House majority — at such a rapid pace it was hard to know the extent of how much was being spent and where it was going.

“We slipped into a deeper hole than we understood at the time,” Cole said in an interview.

Cole has repeatedly cautioned that had the money not been spent by his predecessor, Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), Republican losses would have been much greater than the 30 seats that put them in the minority for the first time in a dozen years.

But at the same time, publicly releasing the $19 million figure demonstrates Cole’s frustration with what he perceives as a lack of understanding of the NRCC’s financial footing at the beginning of the cycle.

“I never am critical on that score,” Cole said of spending the money. “I just want to have people understand where we started. ... All I want to do is have the record clear this is where we began.”

Reynolds loyalists have privately asserted that the debt they incurred last cycle is nowhere near the amounts Cole has claimed, but they have declined to talk about the issue publicly.

Even before the accounting scandal involving Ward came to light, the NRCC has struggled to raise money this cycle, in part because of a poor fundraising environment for the GOP. The committee’s cash-on-hand figure has been further hindered by Cole’s efforts to pay off the large debt.

“When we go into debt this far and we lose the majority simultaneously, we really put ourselves in a deep hole,” Cole argued.

He added: “I don’t ever remember any committee carrying this much debt.”

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