Retiring U.S. lawmakers face tough restrictions on what they can do with their leftover campaign money, but some have found ways to make fat political bank accounts work for them, according to a new study.
Those who become lobbyists are much more likely than other former lawmakers to put remaining money to political use — donating to lawmakers who have the ability to help their lobbying clients, according to the report from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which tracked 57 House members who left Congress in 2007 and 2008.
The roughly two dozen in the group who became lobbyists have given much more than the other retirees to politicians and much less to charity.
“It’s actually an incentive to build up your campaign funds even if you know you’re going to retire,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW. “If you’re thinking of a lobbying career, all the more reason to fundraise.”
The study looked at official campaign accounts as well as former lawmakers’ “leadership PACs,” which face fewer restrictions on spending than campaign accounts. Under federal law, remaining campaign money can be donated to lawmakers, political parties or charities, but it cannot be used for personal expenses.
Former congressman Bud Cramer (D-Ala.), who joined the lobbying firm Wexler & Walker in 2009, has since given $308,500 to lawmakers’ campaigns, the highest amount among the group tracked in the report. Cramer has $1.1 million left under his control.
“I spent eighteen years on the Hill trying to make Congress work better and less partisan,” Cramer wrote in an e-mail. “Since I left the Hill I have used my campaign account to make contributions to members who accomplish goals similar to mine, centrists who want to be effective legislators.”
Former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has given $275,650 to other lawmakers from his leadership PAC, including $18,000 to members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over one of his top clients, Lorillard Tobacco.
A spokeswoman for Hastert’s firm, Dickstein Shapiro, said he was not available for an interview.
Several lawmakers who left the House put relatives on the payroll of their inactive campaigns, the study said.
The campaign of former congressman Dave Weldon, who is running in a crowded GOP primary to take on Sen. Ben Nelson in Florida, paid his wife $6,402 and his daughter $2,920. The records also show the campaign account funded $525 for a stay at the Ritz-Carlton on Valentine’s Day last year.
Hogan Gidley, a spokesman for Weldon, said that the former lawmakers wife and daughter were paid for help winding down his campaign office and that the hotel stay was for “an early morning meeting with potential donors and supporters for a possible next race.”
Former lawmakers also often donate to help the political fortunes of family members. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood donated $60,000 to his son’s state Senate race. And Hastert gave $15,800 to his son Ethan’s campaigns for state and federal office.
In one case, the campaign of Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) continued spending hundreds of thousands of dollars after he died in 2008. It spent nearly $150,000 on consulting and computer services with a company run out of the home of his campaign treasurer. The committee also gave $127,000 to political candidates from New Hampshire, where his daughter Katrina Swett was running for office.
The treasurer, Janet Szelenyi, said that the contributions were made following Lantos’s instructions and that payments to the company were made for services including government filings, research and “official portrait management.”
“Congressman Lantos indicated that for a few years after his death he would like the political committee to remain active in supporting Democratic candidates and campaigns as well as other causes,” Szelenyi wrote in an e-mail.
Former congressman Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) is sitting on $4.8 million — and the interest it pulls in — in his campaign account.
The CREW report calls for creating a time period in which campaigns of retired members would need to wind down their operations.
“The concept that you can keep this indefinitely is problematic,” Sloan said.
New legal troubles for former senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) have surfaced more than four years after he tried to withdraw a guilty plea following his arrest in a Minneapolis airport bathroom as part of a sex-sting operation.
The Federal Election Commission filed suit against Craig this week for using more than $200,000 in campaign money to pay for his legal defense in that case, which the commission alleges was a personal expense and therefore impermissible. The commission is asking a federal judge to require him to repay the money.
A call to Craig’s lobbying office was not returned.