AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Our next guest has been chasing what he calls zombie campaigns. He's a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. Chris O'Donnell, thank you for joining us.
CHRIS O'DONNELL: Glad to be here, Ailsa.
CHANG: What are zombie campaigns?
O'DONNELL: We started looking at the spending of lawmakers who have left office and what they're doing with their leftover campaign donations and were kind of surprised to find that there was actually a hundred campaigns that are still spending unused campaign donations.
CHANG: We're talking about campaigns long dead?
O'DONNELL: Yeah, campaigns where the lawmaker has - it's been at least two years since they were either in a office or campaigning. And even though they've moved on to new careers or they're retired, they're still spending from their campaign accounts - in some cases, home items that would almost certainly be deemed personal use.
CHANG: So what are some examples you've found?
O'DONNELL: Well, Ron Paul, former presidential candidate, for example, was still paying his daughter five years after he left office. Mark Foley, a former Florida Representative - he's paying for his opera membership and to dine in the Palm Beach social circuit. And perhaps our best example was Robin Tallon, a former South Carolina representative, who 25 years after he left office was paying for computers, paying his son a salary and reimbursing himself for - to the tune of $31,000 for something that he didn't - you know, didn't explain or detail in these reports.
CHANG: This is a man whose left office in 1993.
O'DONNELL: That's right, just the same year that Bill Clinton entered the White House. And that campaign account has been open all that time while he's been working as a lobbyist.
CHANG: Was Robin Tallon - if all those allegations are true, was Robin Tallon breaking the law?
O'DONNELL: Well, that really depends on who you ask, and that's one of the things the investigation found. It's that there's almost no laws about what happens once you leave office. Basically the reports are treated the same way. So it's almost as if the FEC isn't paying attention to who's in office or campaigning and who is, as we call them, a zombie.
CHANG: What should a responsible former politician do with any extra money after a campaign's wrapped up? I mean, you know, if that person is not in office or never was able to win office, where should that money go ideally?
O'DONNELL: Well, they have a lot of options that are legal and I don't think anyone would have a problem with. So for example, Senator - former Senator Joe Lieberman and former Representative Charlie Norwood - they both donated more than 90 percent of their leftover campaign money, and they had closed their accounts in less than a year, you know, terminated their campaign fund.
CHANG: But are they the aberration, or do they represent the norm?
O'DONNELL: I think they are the aberration. We didn't find too many like that.
CHANG: So what is the problem here? Is it just that the rules are too murky? Is it that the Federal Elections Commission, which is responsible for regulating campaign spending - is it the problem that they aren't investigating enough, they're not enforcing the rules enough? What's causing the problems?
O'DONNELL: I think you're right on both counts. The FEC rules are vague. The only rule that candidates are told is that you should not spend on something that would be a cost even if you weren't in office - so something like mortgage payments or, you know, groceries. But there are dozens of examples of candidates who when they're in office, you know, they could pay for their cell phone; they could pay for their internet service. They had a campaign office, and when they left office, they just kept paying the same bills out of the same fund. And the other issue is the FEC itself. And to give you an example, they have 34 analysts that are reviewing, you know, these quarterly reports that candidates have to file.
O'DONNELL: The FEC told us that those 34 analysts in 2017 reviewed more than 26 million transactions. So...
CHANG: Wow. And you also found out that the FEC can't even figure out whether a candidate is alive or dead.
O'DONNELL: Yeah. And amazing as that sounds, that is something that the FEC admitted to us. So some of our zombie campaigns are genuine zombies in that the candidate has - is deceased, but their campaigns are still spending money.
O'DONNELL: And the FEC admitted to us that when they reviewing spending, their analysts might not even know that the candidate is dead.
CHANG: Chris O'Donnell is a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. Thank you, Chris.
O'DONNELL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.