Former Rep. Cliff Stearns dinged as FEC cracks down on ‘zombie’ campaigns

Stearns spent thousands at a social club for lawmakers soon after he registered to lobby

Former Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., is a senior advisor based in APCO Worldwide’s Washington, D.C., office and serves as a member of APCO’s International Advisory Council. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Campaign finance regulators dinged former Rep. Cliff Stearns Tuesday for spending leftover campaign funds on personal expenses, the opening salvo in a new crackdown on so-called “zombie campaigns.”

Stearns illegally reached into his old campaign committee, Friends of Cliff Stearns, to pay for dues to a Washington, D.C., Republican club, meals and hotel stays for years after his departure from Congress seven years ago, according to a settlement agreement between the former Florida legislator and the Federal Election Commission. 

Stearns will reimburse more than $8,00 to his “zombie” campaign committee and pay a $6,900 penalty.

Florida Politics first reported the settlement agreement, which the FEC has not made public.

The Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit campaign finance watchdog, alerted the FEC to Stearns’ irregular spending in a 2017 complaint. The filing alleged Stearns began spending thousands from his dormant campaign committee at the Capitol Hill Club, a private social club for Republican lawmakers near the U.S. Capitol, soon after he registered to lobby. 

The longtime lawmaker — Stearns served for twelve terms before being knocked out in a Republican primary by Tea Party-backed Rep. Ted Yoho — lobbies as the executive director of the Washington office of APCO Worldwide LLC. Stearns, the former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on communications and technology, maintains a client list that includes GML Limited, ZHS IP Americas Sarl and Huawei Tech. Investment Co.

The campaign finance watchdog raised concerns about Stearns directing funds from his defunct campaign committee to lawmakers who oversee the same policy issues he lobbies on, but it appears the FEC did not find probable cause that those payments violated the law, Florida Politics reported. 

In May, the FEC sent 50 letters to “zombie” campaign committees inquiring about suspicious spending, Florida Politics reported. The crackdown follows an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and WTSP News into former members of Congress who indefinitely postpone shuttering their campaign committees, tapping the funds for personal expenses instead. 

Stearns did not immediately reply for a request for comment left with APCO Worldwide.  

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