Hotel bills, dues: Regulators question whether ex-lawmakers are using donors' money for personal expenses

Former congressman Jim Moran

Washington (CNN)Democrat Jim Moran left Congress four years ago, but last September, his campaign committee paid more than $1,900 in hotel expenses at a mansion-turned-inn nestled in Nantucket's historic district.

Former congressman Elton Gallegly, who left office in 2013, has used donors' money to pay his wife, Janice, $300 a month for bookkeeping services for a campaign that no longer exists. And Mark Foley, who resigned from Congress amid scandal more than a decade ago, has tapped his leftover money for dues at a civic association in Palm Beach, Florida.
It's been an open secret in Washington for years: Political careers may end, but some former members of Congress keep their campaign accounts alive long after they have left Capitol Hill, using the unspent money to pay relatives and underwrite an array of expenses that crop up in their post-congressional lives.
But federal election regulators now have begun to ask more questions about those leftover funds.
    This week, the Federal Election Commission issued 50 letters to dormant campaign committees, asking their treasurers to provide details on their spending and what steps they are taking to wind down their campaign accounts. It's the agency's first move to scrutinize such spending since it announced plans in 2018 to begin examining the old accounts.
    In several cases, including the committees associated with Moran, Gallegly and Foley, the FEC has flagged examples of "apparent personal use" of donors' money. The notices warn the ex-politicians that they may have to reimburse their campaigns if they don't have good explanations for the spending.
    Not all of the questions the agency raised this week involve the possible personal use of campaign funds. Generally, the regulators just want to know why the former lawmakers and ex-candidates still are holding big sums in their campaign bank accounts if they don't intend to mount future political campaigns.
    The election commission's move "is a really good first step," said Adav Noti, the senior director of the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group that last year formally petitioned the commission to take action on the potential misuse of leftover campaign funds.
    Federal rules allow former candidates to donate leftover funds to charity, other candidates and to political parties. But they cannot convert money from their primary campaign accounts to personal use, defined as a "commitment, obligation or expense of any person that would exist irrespective of the candidate's campaign or duties as a federal office holder."
    Moran, who has more than $180,000 remaining in his old campaign account, told CNN that he viewed his $1,926 hotel bill last year at Nantucket's Jared Coffin House as a political expense because he stayed there to attend a weekend fundraising event for a current member of Congress, Rep. Bill Keating, D-Massachusetts.
    Moran, who represented northern Virginia in Congress for decades, also donated $2,000 to Keating's campaign, FEC records show.
    "The only reason I was there was because it was a part of a fundraising weekend," Moran said in a telephone interview this week. He said it's been "standard practice for decades" for ex-lawmakers to charge political-related expenses to their old campaigns.
    "I know hundreds of former members who have much larger ... campaign accounts," he added.
    But Moran said he's prepared to "just write a personal check" if the FEC deems the hotel bill a personal expense.
    Noti, who served as an associate general counsel of the FEC, said the agency should view Moran's lodging as personal.
    "If you are not a member of Congress and you are not a candidate, there's nothing else it could be, except a personal expense," he said.
    Neither Foley nor Gallegly immediately responded to requests for comment.
    In a letter to Gallegly's campaign, Jill Sugarman, an official in the FEC's reports analysis division, flagged as "apparent personal use" $450 in printing costs incurred by Gallegly's campaign last October and seven payments totaling $2,100 in the last six months of 2018 to his wife for "bookkeeping/FEC compliance" services.
    Gallegly announced his congressional retirement plans in 2012. FEC records show he has not received any new political donations in the last three election cycles. And as of March 31, his campaign had more than $118,000 in leftover funds.
    Foley resigned from Congress in 2006 after news emerged that he had sent sexually explicit messages to underage teen boys. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated Foley but did not pursue charges against him.
    The letter sent this week to Foley's campaign questions more than $22,000 spent last year, ranging from "sponsorships" at nonprofit events to $250 paid in dues to a civic association
      The committees all have until July 3 to respond.
      The Campaign Legal Center last year asked the FEC to step up regulation of leftover campaign funds, following an investigation by The Tampa Bay Times and WTSP-TV that found hundreds of thousands of dollars in leftover campaign funds being used for what appeared to be personal expenses.