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UW Election Eye 2012

Campaign 2012 through the eyes of UW faculty and students

May 3, 2012 at 6:30 AM

How (not) to embezzle campaign cash and flee the country

Greetings from Hawaii

Oh, the places I'll go... with leftover campaign contributions. (Illustration by Daniel Ecklor)

‘Tis the season to be in politics. Washington state politicians are ramping up their campaigns, donors are responding with hefty checks, and campaign bank accounts are beginning their steep, upward climbs.

I can’t help but wonder, what happens to those heaping piles of cash when candidates drop out of their races? If they don’t make it to the general election, do candidates have to give money back to their loyal supporters, or can they keep it? Can they donate it to charity or to their children’s college funds?

More importantly, could I run for state office, scrounge together a couple grand in campaign funds and then drop out of the race just in time to take that post-graduation trip to Hawaii that I’ve been planning in my mind for the last six months?

The prospect of spending a week in a chaise lounge, feet buried in silky Hawaiian sand and a piña colada in each hand, was motivation enough to find the answer.

I quickly discovered that the short answer to my question is no; I cannot use the money I fundraise during my hypothetical campaign to pay for those surfing lessons and a week in a private beachfront hut. The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), which monitors the financing of political campaigns in Washington, has plenty of rules to make sure that won’t happen.

Some of these rules explicitly require candidates to return contributions to donors, like if a candidate collected money for the general election but loses the primary election or drops out before it is held. While digging through manuals and brochures on the PDC’s website, however, I may have found a couple ways to maneuver my way around these strict rules and onto a Hawaii-bound flight.

Regulations are far less rigid for candidates who 1) don’t make it through the primary and have primary funds left over, or 2) make it through the general election with money to spare, whether or not they win. Although these candidates have the option to return their leftover funds, they also have a few other choices. I found several tempting tropical trip-funding possibilities in the PDC’s 2012 Campaign Disclosure Instructions, in the section concerning surplus campaign funds. Let me lay out the most appealing schemes, ahem…I mean options.

1. Run for office, and pay myself to do it

According to the PDC’s rules, candidates can transfer campaign money to themselves “as payment for earnings lost as a result of campaigning.” Most candidates for national races do not pay themselves a salary while they run — although Ohio’s “Joe the Plumber” congressional candidate has recently received publicity for doing so. But it is a common practice for candidates for smaller state offices, according to PDC lead political finance specialist Tony Perkins.

As far as I’m concerned, this means that if I campaign eight hours every single day for the 36 days I have until graduation, I could pay myself, at minimum wage, just about $2,600 — a good chunk of change to easily pay for roundtrip airfare, a room at a beachfront hotel, and even a new iPad to keep me busy during each 5-hour flight.

Unfortunately, candidates have to provide documentation of their lost earnings and can’t pay themselves more than they would have made if they hadn’t run for office. For me, jobless and still living off the money I made last summer, proving that I actually lost earnings while campaigning isn’t really a possibility. Even if I could fudge the numbers, former state Sen. David Schmidt from the 44th Legislative District sets an example of why not to do so. He was fined $10,000 earlier this year for, among other violations, incorrectly reimbursing himself for lost wages. The threat of a $10,000 penalty is reason enough to quickly abandon my first option.

On to door number two.

2. Donate leftover funds to the Allison Deserves an Exotic Vacation charity

Leftover campaign money can also go to charity. In recent years, politicians like presidential hopeful John McCain and former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter have chosen this route for leftover cash. Most opt to donate money to a political party committee instead, but as a hypothetical candidate with make-believe money to burn, why not go the philanthropic road and donate the money to myself?

The Washington Secretary of State says charitable organizations deal with “activities such as educational, recreational, social, patriotic, legal defense, benevolent, or health causes” — and a week on the beach in Hawaii would definitely be recreational and social. But these charities have to be registered with the Secretary of State, and I have a strange feeling my self-benefitting charity might not make the cut.

Not to mention, it takes about two to three weeks to fully register an organization as a charity in the state of Washington. If I’m looking to snag those great airfare deals I found online last week, I just can’t work with that kind of delay.

On to the next option. Third time’s a charm, right?

3. Convince my brother to run for office instead

Although transferring campaign money to relatives is strictly off limits, the PDC says that candidates can use campaign funds to cover “reimbursements for services performed for the campaign.” I may be tooting my own horn, but I would argue that my cupcake-making skills surely count as a “service” to any candidate looking for some yummy snacks along the campaign trail.

So, it seems that herein lies the answer to my problem. Instead of running for office, I need to recruit my outgoing 25-year-old brother to start a career in politics and then hire me as an essential part of his campaign.

I would not be the first to see a family member’s political career as a profitable opportunity. A 2012 report by political watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) looked at how members of the U.S. House of Representatives use their positions to benefit relatives. The report has earned Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul and U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC) recent publicity for their payments to family members. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) from Washington’s 5th Congressional District was also included in the report, which says that her campaign committee paid her brother a combined salary of about $28,000 during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles.

Earning my Hawaiian funds from my brother’s campaign, then, is definitely the way to go. At least, this was my plan until I spoke to Perkins at the PDC. He said that people who violate campaign spending rules intentionally cannot only be fined up to $10,000 for their violations, but their case can be referred to the Attorney General’s office, taken to civil court and slapped with much heftier fines.

The possibility of more than $10,000 in penalties – which can be tripled if the violations are found to indeed be intentional, Perkins said — are enough to quickly squelch my third and final scheme.

As a citizen, I guess I’m glad that there are enough regulations in place to make people like me think twice about swindling the American people. But as a potential embezzler, I’m disappointed to find out that I’ll have to say aloha (meaning goodbye, in this case) to my campaign-funded getaway.

Comments | More in State | Topics: Campaign Finance, dontations, elections

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