Giving Rules Confuse Torricelli, Members

Posted October 22, 2003 at 6:22pm

It’s the case of the excessive $1,000 contribution that won’t go away.

On March 13, Gephardt for President Inc. cashed $2,000 in checks from a campaign account that held leftover funds from former Sen. Robert Torricelli’s aborted 2002 re-election bid. Six weeks later, realizing that the New Jersey Democrat had exceeded contribution limits, Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) aides sent $1,000 back to Torricelli’s campaign fund.

But Gephardt’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination hadn’t seen the last of the excess contribution from Torricelli, who quit his ’02 re-election bid after being “severely admonished” by the Senate Ethics Committee following a six-month investigation that determined he took thousands of dollars worth of inappropriate gifts from a donor.

Torricelli, who walked away with close to $3 million in campaign funds at the end of 2002, cashed the returned $1,000 check from Gephardt on July 1, properly squaring everyone’s accounts. But on Sept. 23, according to the latest Torricelli for Senate filing with the Secretary of the Senate, the former Senator sent another $1,000 check to Gephardt for President.

Unsure of why they had received another $1,000, this time Gephardt officials didn’t even cash that check and returned it directly to Torricelli. “He just misunderstood the rules, we think,” said Erik Smith, spokesman for Gephardt’s presidential campaign.

Torricelli was not alone in misunderstanding the rules of campaign committee contributions to other campaigns. Four other campaign committees for Members, Congressional candidates or former Members made a similar mistake.

Gephardt’s presidential committee also returned $1,000 each to the campaign accounts of Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), former Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), current House candidate Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.), and former House candidate Carl Marlinga (D-Mich.) — all of whom gave $2,000.

Smith said it’s a common misunderstanding among people who operate Congressional campaign committees that because they can now receive $2,000 per election from individuals under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, they can give the same amount to other campaigns.

But in the process of passing BCRA, Members didn’t increase the amount that their own re-election committees could give to other campaigns, leaving intact the $1,000 per election limit. (Some top aides believe that was an intentionally cynical move by Members so they would be limited in what they could give to other campaigns, allowing themselves to hold onto more campaign cash for themselves.)

Torricelli, however, was the only Member or former Member who, after receiving the returned $1,000, in turn wrote another $1,000 to Gephardt for President. The former Senator could not be reached for comment, but his own committee report shows some indication as to why he initially gave $2,000.

That report recorded two separate $1,000 checks for Gephardt, one for his presidential committee and another for a legal compliance fund. But Gephardt hasn’t set up a legal compliance fund, something that is generally only used for the candidate who ends up winning the party nomination.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has set up a legal compliance fund, which cannot be used for campaign-related expenses, and the $2,000 that Torricelli sent to Kerry’s campaign was split evenly between his campaign and compliance funds.

Kerry and Gephardt are the only presidential candidates to receive contributions from Torricelli, whose campaign war chest stood at more than $2.5 million as of Sept. 30. He has been doling out checks since opening a consulting business focusing on work in New Jersey, dishing out $36,750 in the third quarter to candidates and committees in the Garden State.

The Democratic National Committee took in $25,000 from the Senator, and Erskine Bowles (D), a candidate for the seat of retiring Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), received $2,000.

Those contributions complied with the new laws, however, with $1,000 designated for the primary and $1,000 designated for the general election.