By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Just in time for Halloween, “zombie” campaign cash is baaaack.
Retired eight-term Florida Congressman Ander Crenshaw has agreed to cough up thousands of dollars to settle civil charges that for up to two years after leaving office he used donated money from his zombie campaign account to pay for luxury hotel stays, meals and other personal expenses.
According to the Federal Election Commission, Crenshaw’s personal expenditures included $8,000 for trips to the Four Seasons at Walt Disney World, The Broadmoor Destination Resort in Colorado Springs and the Biltmore Estate in Charlotte, North Carolina. Another $3,000 went for dining and drinks at posh restaurants and $450 for membership dues at Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill Club, an exclusive “home away from home” for Republicans only.
In all, the commission determined Crenshaw spent $13,196.08 of campaign funds on himself. As part of its settlement deal with Crenshaw, which the FEC calls a “conciliation agreement,” it did not address accusations made by the Campaign Legal Center that Crenshaw spent another $13,000 in campaign funds on personal travel and other expenses during his final months in office. Crenshaw did not respond to those accusations, either.
Crenshaw, a Republican from Jacksonville, was a member of Congress from 2001 until he stepped down in 2017. Before that, he served in Florida’s House and Senate, where in 1992 he became the first Republican Senate president since Reconstruction. Two years later, Crenshaw, son-in-law of former Gov. Claude Kirk, lost a bid for governor to fellow Republican Jeb Bush.
Today, Crenshaw is senior counsel for the government advocacy and public policy section of Washington’s King & Spalding law firm. He also serves on the board of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. foreign poverty-fighting agency he helped develop while in Congress.
Making a zombie
During the years Crenshaw was actively running for Congress, his principal campaign committee was called Crenshaw for Congress. A month after leaving office in 2017, he converted Crenshaw for Congress to what’s known as a multicandidate political action committee and changed its name to Ander PAC. Republican operative Benjamin Ottenhoff was its treasurer and was also a defendant.
Ander PAC was the source of Crenshaw’s zombie funds – the term for leftover campaign cash held in accounts controlled by politicians who retire or lose an election. Politicians who have used such funds in their political afterlife – to pay family members, advance their careers or, like Crenshaw, fund their extravagant lifestyles – has drawn fire from critics and led to proposed reforms.
For example, according to an April press release, U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa), Gus Bilirakis (R-Palm Harbor) and Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) reintroduced legislation that would require former lawmakers to close their campaign accounts within two years “instead of living on as zombie campaigns.” Colorado Democrat Sen. Michael Bennet introduced a similar bill in December. Both have gone nowhere.
Under the law, conversion of campaign funds to personal use occurs when they are used “to fulfill any commitment, obligation or expense of a person that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s election campaign or individual’s duties as a holder of federal office.” Paying for things like household food items, clothing, mortgage and utility payments or country club dues are considered per se conversion “unless they are part of the costs of a specific fundraising event that takes place on the organization’s premises.”
Crenshaw’s legal troubles began in March 2019 when Margaret Christ of Washington’s non-profit, non-partisan Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the FEC contending that Ander PAC used Crenshaw’s leftover campaign committee funds to pay credit card fees, phone bills and travel-related expenses “in violation of the prohibition against converting campaign funds for personal use.”
Initially, Crenshaw’s lawyer, Charles Spies at the Washington law firm Dickinson Wright, argued “there is not a single shred of evidence” to indicate the PAC or Crenshaw converted campaign funds to personal use. In April 2021, after the commission voted 4-2 to find reason to believe that Crenshaw, Ander PAC and Ottenhoff broke the law, Spies informed the FEC that due to Crenshaw’s “limited financial resources” and his “desire to avoid further legal fees” that he’d consider settling.
The conciliation agreement was signed in October, but made public last week. It doesn’t discuss many details, but it is apparent that the FEC either chose during settlement negotiations to ignore Ander PAC’s payments for the additional expenses complained about by the Campaign Legal Center – such as credit card fees and phone bills – or determined they were not personal to Crenshaw.
In the end, Crenshaw agreed to pay a civil penalty of $3,950 to the FEC, and to “disgorge” another $13,196 – the amount of campaign funds the FEC determined he spent on himself – to the U.S. Treasury.