SAN CARLOS (KPIX) — It’s a loophole in the law: former elected officials are allowed to keep their campaign finance funds forever, even if they never plan to run for office again — even after they die. KPIX found one questionable case right here in the Bay Area.
Ten years ago, people around the world mourned the passing of Bay Area congressman Tom Lantos. Although the much-admired Peninsula lawmaker was dead, his campaign bank account stayed very much alive.
It’s called a zombie campaign because there’s no living candidate yet someone keeps spending campaign money.
It’s also legal, if you follow the rules: The money can go to charity, other candidates and campaigns and office expenses, as long as it’s not for personal use.
In Lantos’ case, most of the money went to the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights, run by his daughter Katrina Swett.
However, in the four years after Lantos died, the foundation’s biggest expense was for a company called Intelligent Software Systems which collected $3000 to $5000 a month for a total of $181,000.
What or who is Intelligent Software Systems?
Since 2003, there has been no such company registered to do business in California. So we called the person who wrote the checks, Lantos campaign treasurer Janet Szelenyi. When she didn’t return our call we went to her home but she refused to answer the door.
As we drove away, we received a call. Szelenyi referred us to the Federal Election Commission website but wouldn’t comment further.
A few days later in an e-mail, Szelenyi told us that Intelligent Software Systems is a DBA (doing business as) reference to herself. She claims she paid herself for doing “a significant amount of work” for the campaign, including “federal election commission filings” and “research and execution of donations.”
“It strikes me as totally inappropriate,” said Ann Ravel, a former head of the FEC. Ravel said treasurers of campaigns are allowed to pay themselves a salary but it has to be reasonable.
“The fact that there is that amount of money after the candidate has died and there is really very little activity … It’s unconscionable,” said Ravel.
“Tom Lantos was a particularly ethical person, someone who really cared about his community, which is why he was not just elected but revered by his constituents. And this is the total opposite,” Ravel said.
This case is not isolated. A year-long joint investigation by our affiliate station WTSP in Tampa with the Tampa Bay Times found roughly 100 “zombie campaigns” still spending lavishly for years after their candidates left office.
“It’s disappointing to say the least,” said one donor who donated $3,300 to the Lantos campaign in 2007, the last year Lantos was in office.
“I liked what he stood for. He had a lot of interest in various situations around the world where people were being treated unfairly and so forth, he was a great champion of that,” said the donor.
“I just always assumed that if somebody passes away then there was a very strict process for what happens to the leftover funds and so forth and apparently that is not the case,” he said.
Ellen Weintraub is the current vice-chair of the FEC. She says they are rolling out a new policy.
“We are going to be giving extra scrutiny to campaigns where the candidate has either died, unfortunately, or has not been running for office for two years — in the case of house candidates — or four years in the case of candidates for the senate or for the presidency,” Weintraub explained.
“We want to make sure that no one is converting campaign funds to personal use, which is banned under the law.”
One thing they’ll be looking at is whether paying someone like Janet Szelenyi so much money after a candidate’s death amounts to illegal personal use.
“At a certain point one has to ask ‘what is this committee doing any longer since it is by definition a committee that was set up to advance someone’s campaign for office,'” Weintraub said.
KPIX contacted the Lantos Foundation to see if they were still using Szelenyi’s services or were aware of her high fees but they did not return our calls.