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Politicians continue spending donors’ money after their political careers are over

Published: Dec. 22, 2020 at 6:12 AM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Former Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, hasn’t run for office since 2008. He announced his retirement in January 2013 and left office in 2015. But his campaign, according to FEC documents, continued to spend over $60,000 during the 2019 and 2020 election cycle.

Citizens for Harkin, which is the name of the former senators’ campaign, spent over $2.3 million dollars of campaign funds during the past 5 years. Harkin hasn’t appeared on a ballot since 2008. Our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Unit found questionable purchases from his campaign along with another federal elected official long after they left office.

These types of campaigns are called zombie campaigns. It’s a nickname given to campaigns that are actively spending money, sometimes years after a candidate is no longer running for office. The Federal Elections Commission (FEC), which oversees regulating campaign finance, can take years to hold these zombie campaigns accountable.

Megan Golberg, who is a political science professor at Cornel College, said it takes the FEC a long time to perform regulatory actions on zombie campaigns because there are a lot of campaigns, PACs and super PACs to regulate.

“There are hundreds of members of congress and to keep track of each transaction, their campaigns take is a huge undertaking,” she said.

The FEC prohibits the use of campaign funds on personal expenses. The regulation agency defines personal expenses as expenses that would exist even in the absence of the candidacy or even if the officeholder were not in the office, like a mortgage payment.

Golberg said those regulations are easy to avoid.

“That’s like easy sometimes to finagle a little bit,” she said. “That’s why they can pay for their cell phones because if they’re using their cellphone for work...But you’d still probably have a cell phone even if you weren’t running for office.”

Former U.S. Congressman Tom Latham’s campaign called Iowans for Latham paid for cell phones and cell service, according to the FEC, until 2018. Documents from the regulatory agency said his campaign also paid 6,000 dollars to a consultant firm for administration reasons.

The largest benefiter of Rep. Latham’s campaign were Republican candidates. His campaign gave more than $50,000 to Republican candidates. Latham donated to Republican candidates after becoming a partner at D.C. consulting firm called Hecht, Latham, Spencer & Associates, Inc.

Four years after Rep. Latham left office, the FEC sent his campaign a letter requesting more information about the campaign since the candidate did not participate in an election since 2014. His campaign treasurer is listed as a president at Hecht, Latham, Spencer, and Associates, Inc.

The campaign responded to the letter late and reacted by transitioning the campaign to a Political Action Committee, where it continued to donate to Republican candidates under the name Plain State PAC.

KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Unit reached out to members of Plain State PAC and Hecht, Latham, Spencer, and Associates, Inc. However, neither the firm nor the campaign returned our request for comment.

Megan Goldberg said it can take a long time for the FEC to react quickly because it’s hard to distinguish between campaigns for politicians who might run again and those who likely won’t.

“Think about like Pete Buttigieg,” she said “He had a ton of money in his campaign, he’s not actively running for office at the moment, I don’t know what he did with that money. But, there’s a really good possibility he’s going to run for something in the future and so what he would probably do is use that as an incoming war chest,” she said.

Former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, who left office in 2015, retired from political life. But, his campaign Citizens for Harkin continued to spend money up until August 2020.

According to the FEC, the senator’s campaign latest action was a charitable donation to Drake University worth $56,000. Documents from the agency show the senator’s campaign also gave $2.2 million dollars to Drake University in 2015.

The FEC allows the use of campaign funds for charitable gifts. It also allows campaign funds to be used on costs for winding down the office of a formal federal officeholder for six months after they leave the office. Those expenses include moving expenses, payments to committee staff, and gifts.

However, according to FEC documents, Tom Harkin’s campaign has given out thank you gifts to supporters as late as 2020. Documents from the FEC show Harkin’s campaign also paid for income taxes on interest earned in 2015 worth over $4,500.

His campaign has spent over $7,000 since 2017 on flowers. Those flowers purchased in December 2019 by the campaign triggered a request for more information about the flower purchase from the FEC.

Theresa Kehoe, who is the treasurer for Citizens for Harkin, told the regulatory agency the flowers were not for personal use and it was their intention to terminate the campaign.

But six months later, Harkin’s campaign remains active.

Kehoe declined to comment on our findings and could not point us to someone who could.

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