Congress

Report: Former members used ‘zombie campaign’ funds in lobbying for foreign interests

Members turned lobbyists used dormant campaign funds to make donations to the legislators they lobbied on behalf of foreign clients

Then-Reps. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., left, and Michael Michaud, D-Maine, talk before a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in 2012. The men have pursued very different post-Washington careers: Miller now lobbies for Qatar. Michaud ran for town selectman in Maine last year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Members of Congress who depart Capitol Hill for a lobbying job have a few advantages: deep knowledge of legislative inner workings, rapport with former colleagues and sometimes, according to a new report, a chest of leftover campaign money.

At least 17 former lawmakers lobbying for foreign governments or foreign political parties maintain dormant campaign accounts — so-called “zombie campaigns,” according to a report published Friday by the Campaign Legal Center. And about half of them have used funds from those campaigns to make donations to the same legislators they lobby on behalf of foreign clients. 

The revolving door between Congress and K Street is well known in Washington. And the cash-for-access culture that expects lobbyists to contribute to lawmakers for the opportunity to bend their ear is also well known. But the phenomenon of leveraging “zombie campaign” funds to grease the wheels for a foreign government “add another dimension to the familiar but ever-expanding story of money, influence, and access in Washington,” the researchers write.

“Donors who gave to support a candidate’s run for office probably didn’t expect that their money would be used to promote the interests of Qatar, Saudi Arabia or Albania — not to mention the former member’s lobbying career,” they write.

The campaign finance watchdog conducted the report in collaboration with the Center for Responsive Politics and The Daily Beast, which first reported the findings. The investigation reaches back to 2014.

Here are some examples detailed in the report:

  • Former Rep. Jeff Miller: The former Florida congressman and member of the Armed Services Committee now works as a lobbyist with McDermott Will & Emery and registered foreign agent of Qatar. Miller pulled thousands of dollars from his “zombie campaign” to donate to Rep. Michael Turner, then chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, about a month after McDermott Will & Emery invited Turner to a reception with the emir of Qatar. 
  • Former Rep. Buck McKeon: As the CEO of the McKeon Group, the former California congressman and Armed Services Committee chairman lobbies on behalf of defense contractors and foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia. McKeon transferred thousands of dollars in old campaign funds to Sen. Jim Inhofe as his firm lobbied the Armed Services Committee chairman, including direct communications with his military legislative assistant, to vote against a resolution to cut U.S. support for the Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Inhofe voted against the measure. 
  • Former Rep. Jim Moran: A longtime lawmaker from northern Virginia just outside the Beltway and now a lobbyist for McDermott Will & Emery, Moran’s clients include Qatar. Moran’s “zombie campaign” donated $1,000 to the campaign of Sen. Robert Menendez in 2018. Two weeks later, Moran circulated a letter to the Saudi ambassador drafted by a lobbyist for Qatar on concerns about a Saudi-led blockade on mixed-nationality families in the country to the senator’s top staffer. Moran lobbied Reps. Charlie Crist and Bill Keating on the same letter, and in the course of his efforts directed old campaign funds to their reelection campaigns.

When a former officeholder no longer has plans to run for office, campaign finance regulators expect that their campaign committee will wind down. But the Federal Election Commission, which oversees campaign finance law but has a reputation for inertia, has not set in place clear guardrails for how these campaign funds should be spent.

This week the FEC dinged former Rep. Cliff Stearns, executive director of the Washington office of APCO Worldwide LLC, for illegally reaching into his old campaign coffers and spending thousands of dollars at a private social club near Capitol Hill as he lobbied on behalf of clients.

Stearns contributed 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 campaigns” inquiring about suspicious spending. But the campaign finance watchdogs say that crackdown will probably not scrutinize the sort of corruption they lay out in the report. 

The “Honest Elections and Campaign, No Gain Act” introduced in the current Congress by Rep. Kathy Castor would require campaign committees to shutter no later than two years after a member of Congress left office. It would direct leftover monies to charitable causes, parties or back to donors.

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