Stearns quiet about what he will do with $1.5M from campaign
Published: Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 10:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 10:13 p.m.
One simple metric shows that former Congressman Cliff Stearns understood he was in the fight for his political life last year.
But what is not so clearly understood — by anyone but Stearns — is what he intends to do with the $1.5 million remaining in his campaign account as he left office.
According to Federal Election Commission reports filed as of Jan. 31, which rounded out the 2012 campaign, Stearns spent $1.3 million on his re-election bid.
The Ocala Republican came up short — by 875 votes — in a tight four-way GOP primary won by now-U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville.
Stearns' spending total for his 2012 race was roughly $400,000 more than he spent on his victorious 2010 campaign, in which he faced an opponent from his own party for the first time in 20 years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
His tally last year was almost as much as the combined $1.48 million that the longtime Capitol Hill veteran spent on his five winning efforts between 1998 and 2006.
Last August's defeat left Stearns with $1.55 million in his campaign account, which, by law, he must dispose of in some fashion.
That was by far the most banked among sitting members of Congress who were ousted last year.
Stearns held $604,031 more than fellow Florida Republican Allen West, who posted the second-biggest chunk of leftover cash among the 46 congressional incumbents who were defeated in 2012, the Center for Responsive Politics reports.
To put Stearns' campaign account into further context, he left office with about half of the combined total of the other 45 incumbents who lost last year.
On average, those 45 former lawmakers — who were defeated either in primaries, races for open seats, re-election bids or the general election — retained $65,614 in campaign funds.
That comes to about 4 cents for each dollar Stearns has in his account.
Stearns, who left Congress after 12 terms, now works as a consultant to APCO Worldwide, a lobbying firm in Washington.
He did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
The report Stearns filed with the FEC on Jan. 31 did not indicate what he might do with the money.
Under FEC rules, defeated incumbents have several options to divest their accounts.
They can refund contributions to donors, pay off campaign debts, contribute to other candidates or campaign committees, give to charity, fund travel expenses related to their official duties or cover expenses for moving their things in Washington back home.
Lawmakers are prohibited from using such funds for personal use under a 1989 law.
Stearns, of course, could also hold on to the money for another campaign. He has not ruled that out publicly.
Stearns received at least one local request for the money. After Stearns lost, Cory Pool, one of the College of Central Florida's trustees, asked Stearns to donate to a scholarship fund that sets aside money for local fifth-graders who might end up at CF.
The money is saved until they head off to college, and if they choose to go to CF, goes toward defraying their expenses. Pool himself pledged $1 million to the initiative.
Stearns' staff did acknowledge the request in a letter that noted it was one of “many” he was considering.
That was as far as the issue went, Pool said.
“I would hope, since those contributions came from people and businesses in his district, that he would give back and at least consider donating to all the worthy causes in the community for all the right reasons,” Pool said.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, a watchdog group, said in an interview the key concern is that lawmakers-turned-lobbyists or consultants, like Stearns, can use their remaining campaign cash to influence their former colleagues.
Last June, CREW released a report analyzing 57 lawmakers — 42 Republicans and 15 Democrats — who left office in January 2009.
Twenty-three members of that group eventually became lobbyists; 34 did not.
CREW's research found that, collectively, those former legislators contributed almost $3 million to other political campaigns, with most of that flowing from the lobbyists in the crowd.
Comparatively, 28 of those one-time lawmakers gave about $1.7 million to charity, CREW noted.
As an example of how CREW believes the process is failing, the campaign committee of Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who died in 2008, had spent almost $600,000 after he passed away and still retained nearly $844,000 on hand when the report as published.
Some of that was provided to Lantos' children, who were identified as consultants or ran for office themselves, CREW noted.
Sloan said one major flaw in the FEC regulations is that there is no deadline for disposing of those funds.
CREW recommends that the FEC impose a two-year window for disbursing the cash.
“Very frequently they use that money to influence other lawmakers,” Sloan said. “All lobbying is based on access, and it gives them an advantage.”
“Two years is a reasonable time,” she added of the proposed change. “You should be able to wind down in two years.”
Contact Bill Thompson at 867-4117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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