They’re called “zombie” campaign accounts.
Like the walking dead of horror movies, they continue to live long after their natural life cycle should have ended.
A joint investigation by WTSP and the Tampa Bay Times found about 100 Congressional campaign accounts living on long past a lawmaker’s term in office. Some even outlive the lawmakers themselves.
The investigation found the money going to all kinds of questionable expenses, including dinners, airfare and payments to family members
Jacksonville is not immune to the trend.
Long before Congressman Ted Yoho was backing the Trump takeover, he was stoking his own political revolution.
Yoho’s election in 2012 was political stunner, in which the large animal veterinarian and first-time candidate ousted a respected 12-term Republican.
Five years later, former Congressman Cliff Stearns – now a lobbyist with APCO Worldwide -- has moved on. But his campaign account lives on.
Since leaving office in 2013, according to Federal Elections Commission records, he has continued to spend freely from his “Friends of Cliff Stearns” fund.
“He appears to be using this money as a personal slush fund,” said Brendan Fischer with the Campaign Legal Center. The center filed a formal FEC complaint in October over Stearns’ spending. Although federal law prohibits converting campaign donations to personal use, the complaint cites several questionable expenses including:
- More than $9,000 in un-itemized credit card charges
- Membership fees for the exclusive Capitol Hill Club
- $5,000 in payments to his wife
Although Stearns’ wife used to be his campaign treasurer, she did not start drawing payments until after he left office.
“We have filed a complaint with FEC alleging that Cliff Stearns violated federal law by converting leftover campaign funds for personal life to subsidize his lifestyle and support his private sector lobbying career,” Fischer said.
Stearns, however, calls it “a bogus complaint.” Though he declined an on-camera or recorded interview, Stearns spoke to First Coast News and defended his spending. He said the fund is used to defray costs when he speaks to nonprofit groups, or is spent on charitable and political donations.
“We have had attorneys who are experts in campaign election law, and they have responded to a complaint filed by a liberal advocacy group," he said.
In an interview with C-SPAN, Stearns suggested the fund still exists because he may at some point revive his political life.
“I’m not a candidate at the moment, but I could be,” he said. Stearns said he has no plans to run, but that his lawyers have assured him the expenses are legitimate.
Last Monday, Stearns reimbursed his campaign account roughly seven thousand dollars for a club membership and a cell phone bill.
That, Fischer believes, shows the legitimacy of their complaint.
“It certainly looks like an admission our FEC complaint was not bogus,” he said.
There is no timeline for the FEC to respond. Unless and until a complaint is verified, all case information remains confidential.