A joint fundraising committee controlled by Rep. Michelle Steel disclosed a donation of $7,900 earlier this year. The only problem: The reported donor had been dead for seven months.
When asked about the contribution last week by CQ Roll Call, the California Republican’s campaign attacked Democrats for exploiting the death of her friend. But the campaign also amended disclosure forms filed with the Federal Election Commission to remove the dead woman’s name. One form now shows the money coming from the decedent’s husband, who was also a donor on the original disclosure.
Dead people aren’t supposed to make political contributions, unless they leave instructions for managers of their estates to do so. But one campaign finance expert said other campaigns have run into trouble in the past when depositing checks from joint accounts, which appears to be what happened in Steel’s case.
The contribution was originally made to the Steel Victory Fund, which collects donations on behalf of the freshman lawmaker and then splits the money with her reelection campaign, her leadership PAC, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the California Republican Party, according to documents on file with the FEC.
During the first three months of this year, 89 contributors gave almost $205,000 to the victory committee, which then transferred nearly $183,000 to Michelle Steel for Congress, the congresswoman’s reelection committee; and $12,000 to Support Taxfighters & Elect Effective Leaders PAC, her leadership political action committee.
In an original April 15 disclosure, Steel Victory Fund said $7,900 was deposited March 31 from Lorrie Y. Hong, identified as a homemaker in Loma Linda, Calif. The same amount was reported as coming from her spouse, Myung K. Hong, who is listed as chairman of the M&L Foundation. The couple also contributed thousands of dollars to Steel in the 2020 election cycle.
Lorrie Y. Hong died Aug. 21, 2020, however, according to an online obituary.
A spokesperson for the Steel campaign said the situation had been “rectified” and attributed the error to a “clerical mistake.” The Steel campaign also blasted former Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda, who lost to Steel last fall and is seeking a rematch in next year’s midterms.
“It’s shameful Harley Rouda and national Democrats seek to exploit the death of a Steel family friend because of a clerical mistake that has since been rectified, just to score political points,” Steel campaign spokesperson Lance Trover said in an email.
A spokesperson for Rouda’s campaign sent along a statement with hyperlinks, blasting Steel’s campaign and her prior record in Orange County, Calif., government.
“From awarding her donors decades-long county contracts, to initiating their purchase of our public park for pennies on the dollar, Michelle Steel’s record of corruption and misuse of taxpayer funds to benefit her donors speaks for itself,” spokesperson Alyssa Napuri said in an email. “It’s ludicrous that Michelle Steel would accept thousands from a deceased mega-donor then play none the wiser when pushed to respond.”
The back-and-forth between the campaigns signals a contentious race ahead for the Southern California seat in 2022.
When donors die
In most instances, deceased people do not contribute political money, though there are some exceptions. In past advisory opinions, the FEC has said that campaign finance regulations may permit an independent third-party “escrow agent” to make donations on a deceased person’s behalf, within contribution limits, to national party committees. That is not the situation with the Hong donation, though.
After listing both Lorrie Y. Hong and Myung K. Hong as donors in April, the Steel Victory Fund filed an amended disclosure with the FEC last week. The new report attributes the combined donation of $15,800 solely to Myung K. Hong.
The victory fund still shows $183,000 being transferred to Michelle Steel for Congress, and that committee’s April 15 report attributed $5,800 of that transfer as coming from Lorrie Hong, and another $5,800 as coming from Myung Hong, showing each giving the maximum allowed to Steel’s reelection campaign. The Steel for Congress report was amended Thursday to remove Lorrie Hong as the source of the $5,800, but the $183,000 transfer was not altered. If the campaign disposed of that cash in some way last week, that may not be disclosed until the next quarterly report, due Sept. 15.
Joint fundraising committees are increasingly common among federal candidates. They allow a donor to write one large check that is then split among other entities, but all those entities are subject to donation limits. Individuals may donate up to $2,900 per election, or $5,800 for a primary and general election, to a federal candidate in the 2022 cycle. Individuals can also give $5,000 a year to candidates’ leadership PACs, and $36,500 per year to the NRCC’s main account.
Michael Toner, a former Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission who does not represent the Steel campaign, said that joint checking accounts have been a reason for attributed donations to deceased donors in the past.
“You get into a scenario where one of the two people may have passed away, but then the question is: Who signed the check, and is that person still alive?” Toner said.