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Zombie Campaigns: GOP congressman says he'll reach across aisle to end abuse

Gus Bilirakis is the latest congressman to call for an end to Zombie Campaigns.
Credit: 10News, Tampa Bay Times
"Zombie Campaigns": A groundbreaking political investigation by 10News and the Tampa Bay Times.

TARPON SPRINGS, Florida - Calling the findings of a 10News/Tampa Bay Times investigation "outrageous," Republican U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis says he'll likely co-sponsor a bill proposed by a California Democrat that would curb campaign finance abuses, nicknamed "Zombie Campaigns."

The 10News/Times investigation identified more than 100 former politicians whose campaign spending remained alive for years - sometimes even decades - after they quit running for office.

In some cases, the spending continued long after the candidate had died.

Expenses included travel, game tickets, opera memberships, fancy meals, personal computers, and even country club dues.

"These members should not be keeping their accounts open for an unlimited period of time," Bilirakis said of the former lawmakers - from both parties - who have exploited a loophole for personal gain. "You brought it to our attention, and I thank you very much, and I’ll bring this back with me to Washington.”

Bilirakis said he would speak to Rep. Mark Takano (D-California) and Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Florida) about the "Let it Go Act," proposed last year, but stalled in committee without any sign of an imminent hearing. He said a bill to prevent the spending of leftover campaign war chests after candidates stop running, go into lobbying, or pass away is likely necessary.

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The Federal Election Commission (FEC) suggests lawmakers take no more than six months to wind down campaigns after leaving office, and giving leftovers to charity, other political committees, or back to the original donors.

But even though the abuses of the loophole were bipartisan, Bilirakis was one of the only Republicans in Washington to respond to inquiries after the investigation was published earlier this month.

Florida U.S. Reps. Dennis Ross and Vern Buchanan failed to comment, as did Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

"Members have to speak out no matter what the consequences are," Bilirakis said. "There needs to be transparency and accountability. So I don’t mind speaking out...it’s the right thing to do."

Former U.S. Rep. Trey Radel (R-Florida) echoed the sentiment.

"It's nothing short of insane," Radel said of the investigative findings. "I don’t think there’s anyone in their right mind that thinks dead candidates should be spending money for someone to be consulting on their campaign."

Radel resigned in 2014 after getting caught in Washington with cocaine. But he still managed to cease almost all of his campaign spending within the FEC's six-month guideline; he says there's no reason so many others don't.

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These examples may not technically violate the letter of the law, but they violate the spirit of the law – not only in the bubble of Washington D.C. – but what donors expect from their members of Congress.”

In addition to congressional action, there could be reform if the FEC decides to review its rules on personal use by former candidates; after the 10News/Times investigation was published, the nonpartisan watchdog Campaign Legal Center submitted a petition requesting the agency take action.

Find 10Investigates' Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips confidentially to npransky@wtsp.com.

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