FEC chairwoman: Penalty ‘slashed’ for ex-congressman who used leftover campaign money to lobby

The law forbids former members of Congress from using old donations like ‘an illegal pension fund’

Former longtime Florida Rep. Cliff Stearns, once the chairman of the Energy and Commerce's subcommittee on communications and technology, now lobbies for a client list that includes Huawei Tech. Investment Co. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

An ex-congressman who diverted leftover campaign money towards dinners and dues at a private club outside of the Capitol just as he began to lobby his former congressional colleagues will only have to pay back a fraction of the campaign funds he misused. 

The Federal Election Commission stalemated in a 2-2 vote over whether to issue a more severe fine to Florida Rep. Cliff Stearns, one that would hold him personally liable, an FEC memo shows. 

The 12-term lawmaker and the former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on communications and technology maintains a client list that includes Huawei Technologies. Huawei has been the source of concern on Capitol Hill because of Chinese telecommunications giant's close ties to Beijing; lawmakers say the proliferation of Huawei products in the U.S. may put national security at risk.

The FEC comprises an even number of Republicans and Democrats and is often at loggerheads as a result, typically with its Democratic members voting in favor of enforcement actions and its Republican members voting against. The persistent deadlocks mean the commission over and over again dismisses alleged violations of campaign finance law. The commission currently has two vacant seats designated for Democrats. 

In this case, Stearns, a top lobbyist at the powerhouse firm APCO Worldwide, will reimburse about $8,00 to his defunct campaign committee, plus a $6,900 penalty. Altogether Stearns will pay back only a fraction of the $26,000 in old campaign donations he tapped for a variety of expenses, including phone bills, storage fees, and payments to his wife. 

That outcome comes as the FEC begins cracking down on so-called “zombie campaigns,” pots of campaign donations that live on long after the candidate has vacated office. 

But the paltry fine shows the limitations of the FEC under its current structure, campaign finance experts say. 

“Some Commissioners appear reticent to hold former office holders fully accountable for misusing campaign funds,” said Brendan Fischer, an expert at the Campaign Legal Center, the nonprofit watchdog group that filed the complaint against Stearns. 

Both the charges and the penalty had to be slashed in order to court a single Republican vote in favor of sanctioning Stearns, FEC Chairwoman Ellen L. Weintraub, a Democrat, wrote in a scathing letter released last week.

“While it should be newsworthy that the routinely deadlocked Commission found a violation of the law and assessed a penalty, this is not the whole story,” Weintraub wrote. 

The FEC excused thousands in improper spending — including $400 spent on greeting cards — “without good reason,” she wrote. 

The sole Democratic commissioner pointed out that the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 forbids members of Congress from using old campaign accounts like “an illegal pension fund.” But the law is barely being enforced, she said. 

“Given Congress’ specific interest in prohibiting the conversion of campaign funds to personal use by former officeholders after they have retired, been defeated, or died, the Commission should vigorously pursue allegations that a former elected official used his campaign account as a personal checking account,” she said. “It is frustrating that, in order to secure Republican votes to move forward in this case, both the charges and the penalty had to be slashed.” 

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