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PACs Find Some Contributions Were Merely Goodbye Gifts

June 4, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Political action committees are finding to their dismay that much of the money they thought they were investing in a friendly 1993 Congress has gone to lawmakers who won’t even be in the race for it.

Many incumbents have been defeated in primary battles. But even more maddening for the special interest groups is a record number of them who took their contributions and since decided to retire.

And some PACs want their money back, rather than leaving it to the politicians to reassign it. Among the outgoing incumbents are at least 30 House members who legally could put it in their own pockets, though most say they won’t do that.

″We are a membership organization of more than 60,000 members,″ said Nathaniel Lack, political director of the pro-Israel National PAC. ″Many are retired and contributed $5 or $10. The last thing they want is their money thrown down the drain.″

Others PACs say they won’t seek refunds - that their money was given without conditions. Others still are debating what their position should be. After all, the retiring incumbents still will be casting votes on a flock of key issues yet this year, and nobody is eager to offend them on the money issue.

″If we cut a check today and someone dropped out tomorrow, I expect we might consider developing a (refund request) policy,″ said Dan Nadash, political director of the National Association of Realtors. ″With record retirements this year I can see a situation where that might occur.″

The National Rifle Association’s Political Victory Fund won’t ask for refunds. ″When we give a financial contribution it doesn’t have any strings to it,″ said fund director Terri O’Grady.

Several of the 43 House members and seven senators who voluntarily announced retirements have made the decision easy. They’ve already written to contributors offering refunds or other choices, such as moving the money to a state political party.

Meanwhile, Rep. George Gekas, R-Pa., has proposed a plan to make sure that no House member leaving office this year can convert any leftover campaign money to personal use.

All remaining contributions for this year’s retirees would go to the U.S. Treasury under Gekas’ proposal. Without the legislation, at least 30 departing House members - those elected before Jan. 8, 1980 - would be eligible to use the leftover money to line their wallets.

Gekas has been unable to even get a hearing on his proposal from the House Administration Committee. ″The silence is deafening,″ said his spokesman, Brian Sansoni. Retiring senators are not eligible to convert campaign cash to personal use.

Congress voted in 1979 to prohibit future House members from pocketing excess campaign money, but the lawmakers then serving exempted themselves. A 1989 law ended that benefit for those veterans after this year.

Federal law requires contributors to specify whether they’re donating to a primary or general election. A member of Congress who retires or is defeated during the primary season must, under federal law, return any contributions that were earmarked for the general election.

A political action committee can give a maximum of $5,000 per candidate for the primary and another $5,000 for the general election.

″We have sent out letters requesting that contributions be returned,″ said Steve Powell of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Active Ballot Club.

But of 25 such requests, he said, only five or so lawmakers have sent back the money so far.

Retiring Sen. Kent Conrad. D-N.D., has made a ″massive project″ out of contacting his contributors, said spokeswoman Laurie Boeder. ″He has sent a letter to all his North Dakota contributors asking if they would want him to return the contribution or donate it to the state party.

Karin Walser, spokeswoman for retiring Rep. Larry Smith, D-Fla., said, ″anyone who contributed to congressman Smith’s campaign in 1992 can have their contribution refunded.″ Smith has written contributors offering the refunds.

The outgoing House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Dante Fascell, D- Fla., said he would return contributions from 1992. As for previously raised money, he said only that it would not be used for personal purposes.

″I do not intend to use it to buy myself a new pair of shoes, new clothes, a new airplane or a new house,″ he said.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is considering asking for refunds but has not yet done so, according to union political action director Rick Scott.

″It depends on when we gave the money and how much we gave. We might look at it differently if we wrote a check for $5,000 and the next day they announced their retirement,″ he said.

The National Association of Home Builders has made no decision yet, but the group’s vice president for political affairs, Tom Baker, said, ″It is a problem.″

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