Bill Covers Spending After Death

Posted April 22, 2009 at 6:43pm

Federal candidates would be allowed to designate an executor to dole out funds from their campaign war chests in the event of their death, under a bill that cleared the House on Wednesday.

Under the bill, sponsored by Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), lawmakers and Congressional candidates could appoint an individual to disburse any money remaining in their campaign accounts at the time of their death. The bill would also allow the candidate to provide specific spending instructions. Those directives would be filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The legislation would amend existing laws that give control of funds to the campaign’s treasurer.

The North Carolina lawmaker has asserted the measure would “give incumbents and candidates peace of mind knowing that funds in their campaign accounts will be disbursed in a manner consistent with their wishes,— according to a copy of talking points provided by his office.

The measure would not, however, alter how those campaigns may use funds in the event of a candidate’s death.

According to FEC spokeswoman Judith Ingram, campaigns of deceased candidates must still adhere to the same rules when spending any excess funds.

Campaigns may use funds for continuing administrative expenses — such as salaries and rents paid to close an office — or to retire debt, donate to other candidates, or give to nonprofit groups. But funds cannot be used for expenses that would enrich the candidate’s family, such as salaries, vacation, groceries or tuition.

“It would be the same personal use restrictions,— Ingram said.

While it is not uncommon for an unsuccessful candidate to need to address leftover cash, the 110th Congress also counted eight deaths among sitting Members, leaving significant campaign funds unused.

Among those is the campaign of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), who died unexpectedly in August 2008 after suffering a brain hemorrhage.

In addition to expenditures on salaries and office space, the most recent FEC report for Tubbs Jones’ campaign lists a half dozen items for the late lawmaker’s “adopted daughters,— a group of 14 high school girls whom Tubbs Jones mentored in Ohio.

According to Gloria Nance, the campaign’s assistant treasurer and Tubbs Jones’ former fundraiser, the expenditures are considered donations, although the group is not a formal charity.

“These girls are from a distressed area here in town,— Nance said of the group, all of whom are high school sophomores. “They’re not able to do any of this on their own.—

Nance said Tubbs Jones began the group, informally known as “STJ’s adopted daughters,— two years ago, when the students were in eighth grade.

“She took them under her wing, met with them regularly,— Nance said. “She took them to church. She took them to meet prominent officials in the area.—

Following Tubbs Jones’ death, two of the students were selected to attend the Congressional Black Caucus’ Annual Legislative Conference, and the campaign purchased one suit and one casual outfit for each girl — FEC records include an October visit to a mall in Richmond Heights, Ohio, for three purchases totaling $522 — with hotel and airfare donated by “other contributors,— Nance said.

Other expenditures for the high school group included an October dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe in Cleveland for $318 and a November meeting at Lancer Steakhouse in Cleveland for $70, where the group met to learn about the trip to the CBC conference, Nance said.

Those expenditures were reviewed with an FEC employee, Nance said. “We like to stay above board with everything we do.—

Kent Cooper, a former FEC official, explained that campaigns are allowed to donate funds to a charity, even if it is not a registered organization.

“Even though it might not have gone to an IRS authorized nonprofit … they might have thought of it as charity,— Cooper said. “The only place you’d have any concern is if the Member’s estate or family is benefiting from it.—

In addition to nonprofit or political donations, Cooper said other scenarios in which a campaign may spend funds on items other than administrative needs could include events planned prior to a candidate’s death.

“I think in wrapping up the affairs of a deceased person, a trustee or executor or a treasurer … often takes into account the commitments that were made earlier … so that the memory of the person isn’t tarnished,— Cooper said.

But one such incident raised questions in 2007, following the death of Rep. Charlie Norwood (Ga.), when the late Republican’s campaign spent more than $63,000 at the Ritz-Carlton on Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Ga., more than two months after his death.

During the same weekend, former Georgia state Sen. Jim Whitehead (R) — whose campaign hired numerous Norwood aides and was endorsed by the lawmaker’s family — also held two fundraisers at the same resort.

According to Associated Press reports at that time, former aides to Norwood asserted the resort had been reserved for a golf tournament prior to the lawmaker’s death and could not be canceled. Whitehead ultimately lost his bid to Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.).

Campaigns are allowed to donate funds to other candidates.

In one notable instance, Katrina Swett, daughter of the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), served as campaign treasurer and took control of her father’s significant campaign coffers following his death in 2008.

According to FEC records, Swett, who ran unsuccessfully for a House seat in 2002 and has formed an exploratory committee for a 2010 bid, doled out a $20,000 donation from her father’s $1.3 million campaign fund to the New Hampshire Democratic Party in early March, as well as $1,000 to Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), who is vacating the House seat to run for Senate.

Cooper said there is no requirement that campaigns refund donations following a Member’s death.

“I don’t think there’s as strong a fiduciary concern about political campaign accounts,— Cooper said. “Once [donors] make that contribution, they have no idea where the monies will go or how they will be spent.—