The Federal Election Commission criticized a political fund chaired by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) for misstating accounts and failing to report debts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The watchdog agency issued its findings after auditing DeLay's Americans for a Republican Majority PAC (ARMPAC) for 2001 and 2002. ARMPAC is one of a growing number of "leadership" PACs, through which members of Congress provide financing and electoral assistance to other candidates for office.
The agency did not take disciplinary action against DeLay or ARMPAC. But its report said that the commission might in the future penalize the fund, an act that usually involves a fine.
Campaign finance experts said that the findings, although not insignificant, do not appear to involve flagrant breaches of law.
"There's certainly a lack of attention to detail and poor accounting practices here, but these sorts of things are common in political accounts," said Kent Cooper, co-founder of PoliticalMoneyLine, a campaign finance research Web site.
ARMPAC's accounting problems came during the 2002 election cycle, when it raised and spent more than $3.6 million. Since 1999, several thousand individual and corporate contributors have given more than $13 million to ARMPAC and it, in turn, has spent millions to help Republicans win elections.
A lawyer for ARMPAC, Donald F. McGahn II, played down the importance of the audit.
"It didn't disclose any substantive violations of election laws; instead, it's essentially accounting issues of a technical nature based on FEC accounting minutiae," McGahn said.
He characterized the report as "relatively clean" and predicted that if ARMPAC is fined, "it's not going to be a significant penalty."
Democrats and liberal groups lambasted DeLay for the infractions. "When it comes to federal elections law, Tom DeLay and his special-interest friends live by one set of rules, and everyone else lives by a very different set," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The audit said that ARMPAC made "material" misstatements about its donations, cash on hand and disbursements. The discrepancies, which have been corrected, totaled more than $100,000.
Auditors also said they had trouble examining the accounts because about 28 percent of contributor checks and a third of expense paperwork such as invoices were missing.
ARMPAC failed to properly disclose debts totaling $322,306 that it owed to 25 vendors, the report said. McGahn said that the vendors were paid on time and that the fund amended disclosure documents to comply with the auditors' criticisms.
DeLay's fund also spent $203,483 from a non-federal account -- which contained money relatively easy to raise in large chunks -- that should have come from an account governed by tighter federal laws, which make the money harder to collect in such sizable amounts.
ARMPAC has been repaying the non-federal account with the harder-to-raise funds and has amended disclosure statements to reflect the changes, the audit said.
The political action committee used the "soft money" to pay for fundraising events in California, Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as for administrative expenses and voter-mobilization drives, the audit said.
A separate fund created by DeLay and some aides, Texans for a Republican Majority, is facing strong scrutiny in Texas.
Staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.