Our short bio: We're Chris O'Donnell, Eli Murray, Connie Humburg and Noah Pransky, reporters for the Tampa Bay Times and 10News/WTSP. We've spent just short of a year investigating 'zombie campaigns': political campaign accounts that are still spending years after the politicians they were working to elect left office.

We found more than 100 former lawmakers spending campaign donations on things like cell phone bills, fancy dinners and luncheons, computers and an ipad, country club dues, and paying salary to family members – all after leaving office. Around half of the politicians we identified moved into a lobbying career when they retired allowing them to use those campaign accounts to curry favor for their new clients. Twenty of the campaign accounts were still active more than a decade after the candidate last sought office. Eight of the campaign accounts belonged to congressmen who had died but were still spending donations as if they were still running for office. In total, the zombie campaigns we identified have spent more than $20 million after leaving office.

It's not just small fish either. We found Ron Paul paying his daughter $16k+ over the course of 5 years after he last campaigned in 2012. He fled when our affiliates tried to ask him questions outside of the building where he records the Ron Paul Liberty Report. Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning paid his daughter almost $95k since he retired. Mark Foley, who was forced out of office a decade ago amid allegations that he was sexting teenage boys, still spends campaign donations on posh luncheons and travel. Sen. George LeMieux hasn't run for office since 2012, but spent $41k+ on management consulting services and then denied to us on camera when we confronted him. Hawaiian political operative Dylan Beesley was a campaign advisor the for the late Rep. Mark Takai. A couple months after his death, papers filed with the FEC listed Beesley as the campaign treasurer. Over the course of 17 months since Takai's passing, Beesley has paid $100k+ out of the dead congressman's campaign to his own consulting firm for 'consulting services' rendered on the campaign of a dead man.

And that's only a slice of what we've uncovered. You can read the full report here. It's about a 15 minute read. Or click here to see Noah's tv report, part two here.

For the short of it, check out this Schoolhouse Rock style animation.

We also built a database of all the zombie campaigns we identified which can be found here.

Handles:

AUA!

Proof: https://twitter.com/Eli_Mur/status/960887741230788608

Edit: Alright folks, that's a wrap for us today. Thanks for all the awesome questions, observations and conversations. I also want to give a special thanks to the folks who gilded this post – too bad I use an alt when I browse reddit on a daily basis (Ken Bone taught me a thing or two about mixing your private and professional reddit accounts lol). I'll check back in the morning to keep answering questions if there are still some coming in. It would make it easier for me if you make the question a top-level post on the thread so I can get to it by sorting on 'new' – otherwise it may fall through the cracks. Thanks!

Comments: 1749 • Responses: 43  • Date: 

DrPrecious2460 karma

What do you think should be done with all that money?

elimurray4685 karma

The FEC says you're allowed to do 3 things with the leftover money in your campaign account after you leave office/lose an election: refund it to donors, donate it to charity, or donate it to another political committee.

MaesterMagoo1144 karma

It seems like if done properly you could launder your remaining campaign funds provided you own a charity and a business. So if Trump decides not to run in 2020 he can send the remaining money to his charity? Out of curiosity did HRC do this with the Clinton Foundation?

NoahPransky918 karma

There is such poor oversight, those kind of things would be possible. That said, there is so much scrutiny on big presidential candidates, it would be much more difficult for them. However, nobody seemed to pay attention to former Congressional candidates prior to our story.

MaesterMagoo305 karma

Would it be that difficult for someone like our current POTUS? He can transfer his campaign funds to his charity and throw some events at his golf clubs/hotels/restaurants serving Trump wine and Trump bottled water. I would imagine for someone with enough varied businesses it could be easy.

elimurray465 karma

No, it would not be difficult for him or any politician to do exactly that.

elimurray357 karma

Yes, any candidate certainly could donate all their leftover money to their own charity like Tom Lantos for example.

We did not look at HRC's campaign in this report for two reasons:

  1. National general presidential elections are kind of a different beast in the sense of how much money they spend and raise, so we didn't think it was fair to compare them to congressional campaigns.
  2. In an attempt to be as fair as possible, we gave campaigns two years to close after they lost an election or retired from office so that they could get their affairs in order, pay off debts, get out of contracts, etc. Hillary's campaign hasn't passed that two year thresh hold to be what we considered a zombie campaign.

wildwolfay5752 karma

Does the FEC say what should happen when the money doesn't go to one of these options?

I suppose I'm concerned with the idea that this will be reported, and the numbers and facts are there, but who will enforce in this case?

NoahPransky1011 karma

The FEC needs to enforce, and thanks to a petition filed yesterday by the Campaign Legal Center, the FEC will have a chance to clarify and rewrite the vague rules: http://www.wtsp.com/article/news/we-need-to-fix-it-as-watchdogs-lawmakers-try-to-stop-zombie-campaigns/67-515040443 But you're right, Congress needs to fix the law too. Its a bipartisan problem - we need it to be a bipartisan fix.

wildwolfay5389 karma

But because it's the FEC then the change must come from congress...

so are we stuck back in a loop of self-regulation until people forget?

NoahPransky336 karma

We are hoping the exposure at least gets the FEC to clarify rules. They don't need Congress for that....they just need a bipartisan scandal with enough outrage that they have to do something (dead guys campaigning?!?). A law will take Congress though, yes.

trit0Ch40 karma

so instead of zombie voters we got zombie candidates? in the case of dead candidates, who authorizes the funds transfer and can they be held liable and be prosecuted? also, these accounts, how do they stay open for so long and how come there is no oversight?

elimurray117 karma

As Saxby Chambliss told us, they stay open "because there's money in it". There's no oversight because there legislators don't want there to be. They've killed bills in the past that proposed ways to close the loophole we identified.

Tex-Rob24 karma

I apologize for not reading the article first, but I think this might be a common question.

Is it possible that the dead congressman charges were for previous services that just took a while to be paid out because of his death, paperwork, etc?

elimurray53 karma

It's certainly possible, but definitely not true in any of the cases we identified. We didn't consider any campaigns that ended in debt when the politician lost election/retired.

elimurray231 karma

They don't say what should happen but in the past they have fined candidates and forced a disgorgement of funds to the US treasury. But that happens rarely because the FEC does not have an effective investigative arm – just 34 analysts to check 20+ million transactions in 2017.

thecloudwrangler22 karma

How much of your reporting comes from open records? Couldn't software help automate a lot of the investigative work?

elimurray82 karma

Yes, it all comes from the FEC API. In fact, I wrote a lot of software to do this reporting. 2 versions of a scraper, 3 versions of a disbursement tagging app, and the interactive database we published online with the story.

phonics2ebonics44 karma

You sound like one of the most awesome people ever. Like some sort of nerd vigilante/superhero.

elimurray15 karma

lol you're too kind :)

lurkity_mclurkington1690 karma

Heard you on NPR yesterday and was fascinated by this! So, thank you for doing this AMA!

What was the most egregious use of campaign funds that you found? Which campaign was, in your opinion, the biggest concern?

chrisod31615 karma

Thank you. For me it was just how former lawmakers just assumed they can keep on spending even when they're no longer campaigning. We found dozens of campaigns like that with donations being used to pay for phones, internet, office space, etc even when the candidate was many years out of office. If I had to pick one campaign that should attract attention it would be that of Robin Tallon, a former S.C. congressman. He left office in 1993 and is still spending.

lurkity_mclurkington737 karma

He left office in 1993 and is still spending.

Holy fucking shit! Was his campaign account THAT massive? Are they allowed to invest those funds and use the capital gains or income from investing?

Thank you Chris and the rest of the team for all of your work on uncovering and reporting on this!

elimurray1072 karma

He left with around $400k in his account. Through some wise investments, he grew that to over $1 million while still spending lavishing on himself.

buddythebear972 karma

I’ve noticed the Tampa Bay Times seems to have a pretty strong investigative team and produces a lot of really in-depth public accountability journalism, more so than other papers with similar circulations. How is your paper able to produce such great reporting so consistently when there are so many pressures to produce clickbait and slideshow fluff stories? How can other papers replicate what you all are doing?

chrisod3949 karma

Thanks for noticing. It's just part of the culture here that accountability and watchdog journalism is valued. We have an investigations team and the team is often bolstered with beat reporters. My beat is social services yet I was allowed to focus on this project for several months. The Times' ownership model also helps. The paper is owned by the Poynter Institute, a non-profit set up to advance and promote journalism.

idmo190 karma

Where do the ideas for investigations come from? I feel like this whole thing is something that obviously goes pretty unnoticed, wondering who thought to start looking.

I had a feeling when I picked up this Sunday's paper from my driveway that this story might end up blowing up. Nice job guys, one of the rare times I read start to finish without skipping to the comics.

elimurray277 karma

Credit goes to Noah for turning us onto this story. He'd been pestering Mark Foley and George LeMieux about their campaign spending for years. Last year, at a conference, we got to talking about how this was a national story and how we could use the FEC's own data to report on it.

cshenton44 karma

Do you think that sort of funding model has a future in journalism on a larger scale, or is there another adjustment that needs to be made?

elimurray77 karma

Honestly, probably not. I think we are in a pretty unique situation being owned by a non-profit and I don't think that's feasible everywhere. I also don't think it is a requirement to do good reporting – tons of great articles are published every year by all kinds of news outlets.

suaveitguy541 karma

What legally constitutes a 'campaign'? Can a single candidate and a few friends 10 years after the fact still legally be a campaign, or do you need to meet a threshold like non-profits do?

elimurray761 karma

To be a campaign, all you need to do is file with the FEC. The loophole is that there is nothing in federal election rules that requires you to close down your account after the campaigning ends. These campaigns that are still legally "campaigning" according to the FEC whilst not actually campaigning for an office are what we called zombie campaigns.

martin30r299 karma

Do you think that this loophole is intentionally present for this use, or was it a byproduct of poor forward thinking?

elimurray689 karma

I think it's intentional. There are bills that have been filed to address this that were killed right away.

youareadildomadam37 karma

What are the tax implications of having a "campaign" account? Do campaigns pay taxes on their contributions/expenses?

elimurray41 karma

Generally, no I don't think they pay taxes. Some candidates incorporate their committees in which case they are subject to paying taxes on the funds.

iN5OMANiAC288 karma

Can't these people be arrested for misuse of funds? Or are they not commiting a crime technically?

elimurray294 karma

They are kind of in a grey area, legally. Campaign finance laws don't require a former politician to close their accounts. Some experts we've talked to from groups such as IssueOne, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and the Campaign Legal Center think that some of the spending we uncovered is illegal and are filing petitions to make clarifications on exactly what is and is not allowed. In fact, the CLC filed a petition yesterday

suaveitguy195 karma

What is the best way to contract/shrink the size of campaigns? Would that eliminate the amounts of money at every stage of the process, including this one after the fact?

elimurray288 karma

As far as shrinking the amount of money in campaigns goes, that's not really something we covered in our reporting so I'm not sure I can give you a good answer for the best way to do that.

But congress could put an end to these zombie campaigns by writing legislation that requires a candidate to close down their accounts after the election ends or they retire (with some reasonable time limit to close down) and require that the remaining funds are donated to charities or other political committees.

Hippopoctopus147 karma

You mentioned that the Ron Paul campaign had paid his daughter $16k over 5 years. Why would people expose themselves to such risk for such small potatoes? If someone were embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars I could see someone arguing the risk was worth is, but for ~$3k/yr?

elimurray129 karma

This is a good question that I would love to have an answer to but unfortunately Paul refused to answer our questions. Here's a video of him running away from our partner reporters from Houston.

BBJ_Dolch84 karma

What happens next? Now that the issue has been brought to light, what can your average citizen do about it?

elimurray125 karma

Honestly, this has to be fixed at the legislative level. There are giant loopholes in the rules and the FEC doesn't have to resources to properly vet the more than 20 million transactions they are tasked with a year. So the buck stops at congress who write the rules and also underfund the commission tasked with enforcing the rules. The best way to get change is to tell your congressmen that reform is needed and that they should pay attention to this issue.

TheSkyAndTheCosmos83 karma

What was the most random thing you found purchased? Most concerning?

elimurray304 karma

lol this wasn't in our story because his campaign ended in debt so we didn't scrutinize him but Lyndon LaRouche spent tens of thousands dollars from his campaign account publishing the book "Children of Satan III: The Sexual Congress for Cultural Fascism"

Daedalus22655 karma

Have there been any eye-catching purchases with these funds? Or any amount spent on something you weren't expecting?

elimurray139 karma

I posted this in reply to another question but the most random/surprising to me was Lyndon LaRouche who spend tens of thousands of campaign dollars publishing "Children of Satan III: The Sexual Congress for Cultural Fascism".

Hippopoctopus44 karma

Based on my rough accounting of the people listed in your Zombie Campaigns Database, and not looking at their individual behaviors or the amounts spent, it looks like democrats are more likely to do this than republicans.

This observation seems more partisan than I'd like it to be. I don't want this to turn into another Reddit "us" vs. "them" thread, but I found this interesting.

  1. Is that a fair assessment?
  2. Do you feel that one side or the other spent more this way?
  3. Was there a difference in how this money was spent by party?

Edit: Below /u/EliMurray says

there are more than 18,000 campaign committees filed with the FEC so we didn't get to look exhaustively at all of them

This is an important point that invalidates my "analysis" above. Counting the number of Ds or Rs on the list isn't worthwhile, because the list isn't exhaustive.

elimurray40 karma

I think it's a nonpartisan issue that both parties should want to address. Our database only shows the 102 worst offenders that we found but there are more than 18,000 campaign committees filed with the FEC so we didn't get to look exhaustively at all of them and I'm sure there are many more out there that we haven't reported on yet.

yucatan3636 karma

Were you surprised politicians are shady?

elimurray96 karma

No, it does not surprise me that congress writes massive loopholes into campaign finance laws and underfunds the commission responsible for oversight of campaign spending.

Meyer199931 karma

(Full disclosure I have not read the article if it’s in there just tell me and I’ll read it)

How did you find out about this? Or in other words what revealed the money trail?

elimurray17 karma

u/NoahPransky should answer this one

Kerrigannn29 karma

I'm from the UK, so could you briefly explain "campaign donations" please? And why aren't these things stopped once the person stops running?

elimurray47 karma

In the US, politicians can ask their supporters to donate money to them to help pay for campaign expenses and the cost of being in office. There's a limit to how much money a single person can donate to a campaign (I think its around $2k per election cycle but I would need to double check that). When a person stops running or leaves office, they are supposed to close down these campaign accounts and either refund the donations or donate the leftovers to charity or other political committees.

MorsOmniaAequat27 karma

Though not directly related, has the Citizens United ruling had an impact on these zombie campaigns? Is it simply the scale of the money in campaigns now that are a feeder for this issue?

elimurray81 karma

Citizens United doesn't have a direct impact on the loopholes we describe in our article.

But you can look at it this way: if a politician can accept hundreds of thousands of dollars from special interests while they are campaigning and then retire and spend that money on themselves with no oversight, it's kind of like a bribe, no?

ghostinthewoods24 karma

What was your first reaction when you realized what you were looking at?

NoahPransky57 karma

We had a lot of "WOW" moments....and then a month or so later, we'd find something else even more surprising. The dead candidates whose campaign accounts kept spending for years after death was really the most shocking.

Self-Medicated-Dad11 karma

How many post death accounts were still spending? Versus post death that stopped?

elimurray27 karma

We found 8 still spending. There's no doubt in my mind that there are more, we just didn't have the man power to go through every single one of the 18,000 registered campaign committees filed with the FEC.

jess_the_beheader12 karma

Is this practice illegal or is it simply unethical? If it is illegal, which agency is supposed to audit these campaigns and have you reported them?

elimurray16 karma

It's a grey area, for sure. The FEC is responsible for auditing these accounts but they have just 34 analysts who had to check 20+ million transaction last year. Some ethics advocacy groups have started filing petitions to the FEC to clarify what is and is not legal spending.

blueeyes_austin12 karma

How did you all get in the track of this story? Was it a specific case you were alerted to?

elimurray17 karma

Noah found a few FL pols who were doing exactly this. They kept dodging him and his questions for years. Last year, around this time, we met up at a conference and started talking about his story idea and how we could pursue it on a national level using the FECs own data.

hob_prophet8 karma

What do you think will come of this? Are you getting information to the right people (or are you hoping the public will take this information and wise up?)?

elimurray10 karma

The buck stops at congress. Congress writes the loopholes into law and underfunds the agency tasked with enforcement.

Through our reporting we've been in contact with various groups such as CREW, IssueOne, and CLC who are filing petitions with the FEC to better clarify the rules on what is and is not allowed. Ultimately, though, the only way to get change is for voters to make it known that they want reform from their reps and sens.

macadore7 karma

Why do politicians get to keep their campaign contributions after they retire? How is a campaign contribution different from bribery?

elimurray7 karma

This is a very good question. If no one is scrutinizing these campaign donations after the pol leaves office it certainly doesn't do much to stop bribery. Although I should point out that we didn't explicitly find any bona fide examples of bribery in our reporting.

DrAbeSacrabin4 karma

Have you pitched this to Bill Maher’s group or John Oliver’s group to get more national exposure?

elimurray6 karma

We have not, but Last Week Tonight is one of my fav shows and I would love to talk to Mr. Oliver if he would have me!

FieraSabre3 karma

Where exactly is all this money they're spending coming from? Is it from the department of the treasury? It's certainly not voter donations haha.

elimurray2 karma

Yep, campaign donations from supporters or from other PACs

stormhunter13 karma

With this being the case, and the possibility that zombie accounts are probably more rampant than we imagine, does it ever make sense to donate money to politicians?

elimurray7 karma

I think it makes sense to donate to politicians but only if you trust them to do the right thing with the donations after they leave office. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., both donated more than 90 percent of their money to charity and closed their campaigns within a year of leaving office.

Triangli2 karma

What could be done to incentivize campaigns to not do this?

elimurray4 karma

The only way this changes, in my eyes, is for congress to address this with legislation.