A handful of Members of Congress have among them received hundreds of complaints from the Federal Election Commission about inaccuracies in their campaign finance reports over the past several years, far beyond the average of most campaigns.
The FEC routinely sends letters to campaigns asking them to explain records that appear to be incorrect; since 2003, the agency wrote more than 18,000 letters to 3,300 candidates, according to a Roll Call study of campaign finance records.
But several Members of Congress have received more than their share of queries.
No one has received more of these questions than Rep. Henry Cuellar. As the Texas Democrat raised and spent more than $5 million, he also racked up 63 notifications from the FEC since 2003 questioning his campaign finance reports.
These agency notifications often included strong language and warned the campaign that it could face “an audit or enforcement action” if it did not adequately answer the FEC’s concerns.
The agency ultimately did audit Cuellar’s 2006 campaign, finding that he received $36,000 that exceeded contribution limits and $13,000 in prohibited corporate contributions as well as misstated financial activity on numerous records.
Cuellar’s campaign spokesman explained that many of the filing errors were a symptom of the lawmaker’s transition from the Texas Legislature to the more stringent federal filing requirements of the U.S. House.
“When going from raising $200,000 a year to raising millions of dollars, there are inevitably going to be some growing pains,” said Colin Strother, Cuellar’s campaign spokesman. “And I — quite frankly — underestimated how much more difficult it would be.”
Originally the campaign used staff familiar with state requirements to file FEC reports, Strother said. But during the last few years, the Cuellar campaign retained new accounting staff inside the Beltway, and Strother does not anticipate any future problems.
“We are in full compliance,” he said. “We are not currently under any sanction or any investigation by the FEC, and we have always fully complied with any directive they have given us.”
Other campaigns have had more serious problems at the staff level. For instance, many of the FEC’s 39 letters to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) during the past seven years stem from a scheme by the campaign’s former administrator, Jennifer Adams, to embezzle nearly $280,000. An internal review by the campaign exposed numerous unauthorized disbursements, and in 2008 Adams pleaded guilty in state court to several counts of fraud.
Graham’s former campaign manager, Scott Farmer, said an overwhelming number of the FEC letters resulted from the situation of embezzlement and its paperwork aftermath.
While some lawmakers can point to actions of campaign staff, others who received a significant number of letters said software problems were to blame for the misunderstandings between campaigns and the FEC.