Lawmakers leave Capitol Hill with filled pockets

September 29, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Announcing his retirement, Rep. Bill Dickinson said he wanted to leave the House while he had his health and his hair.

Thanks to a loophole in a 1989 House ethics and pay act, the

Alabama Republican lawmaker will also descend Capitol Hill with LTC something else: about $306,000 in leftover campaign funds.

Mr. Dickinson is one of an estimated 40 House members elected before 1980 who are entitled to keep surplus campaign money for their personal use -- if they leave by the end of the year, before the start of the 103rd Congress in January.

Departing on their own or defeated in primaries, the eligible House members may keep what they had in campaign war chests as of Nov. 30, 1989. For Mr. Dickinson, that was roughly $450,000.

For other congressmen, the money at stake also may be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The only Maryland lawmaker eligible to keep left-over cash is Rep. Beverly B. Byron, a Frederick Democrat who was defeated in the March primary.

Although Mrs. Byron was eligible to leave with about $61,000, her bruising re-election effort effectively wiped out her campaign account. The balance of $1,936.93 will be used "to cover estimated winding-down costs of the [campaign] committee," the Byron campaign said in a July letter to the Federal Election Commission.

Members elected after 1980 cannot use any excess campaign money for personal use, regardless of when they retire.

Like almost all of his departing colleagues, Mr. Dickinson, a 28-year Hill veteran, has not decided what he plans to do with the money that is left. He might use the cash for a possible gubernatorial campaign in two years or donate it to "a good cause or a number of good causes," according to press secretary Mike Lewis.

Rep. Carl D. Pursell, a retiring Michigan Republican who can keep roughly $154,000, also hasn't reached a decision about the fate of his money. But he will not put it to personal use, said an aide, Bill McBride.

And Rep. Larry J. Hopkins, a Kentucky Republican eligible to retain about $664,000 of his money, is pondering the same question.

"His standard response has been, 'I've not made any decision,' " said Larry VanHoose, the congressman's administrative assistant. "He'll address that after he leaves Congress, not before."

The retiring congressman with the highest threshold amount is Rep. Stephen L. Solarz of New York, who had more than $1.3 million at the end of 1989. But after a losing reelection bid, the Democratic lawmaker has "a couple of hundred thousand left," said spokesman Robert Hathaway. Mr. Solarz "has clearly said he will not use it for personal use," he said, adding the money might be used for "other political activities."

Some Hill staffers and reform groups are convinced that a number of the retiring congressmen, instead of using the money for a noble cause, will quietly spend the campaign cash on themselves once they leave office and are away from closer scrutiny. Senate rules, meanwhile, prohibit members from converting campaign cash into personal use.

"There's no mechanism for holding them to a promise if they make a promise," said Donna Edwards, a staff attorney for Congress Watch, a group created by consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

One of the retiring members, Rep. Walter B. Jones, a North Carolina Democrat, flatly said he would pocket the money -- about $297,000. But Mr. Jones died this month. "I have no idea what is going to happen to [the money] now," said Nancy Fish, who was Mr. Jones' press secretary.

In such a situation, according to the House ethics committee, surplus funds could revert to the estates of eligible congressmen.

Earlier this year, when there were 29 lawmakers on their way out who were eligible to take campaign cash, Congress Watch wrote each of them and suggested they donate their excess cash to the federal Treasury to help publicly fund campaigns. There were no responses, said Michael McCauley, research director for Congress Watch.

"Pocketing campaign funds is unethical -- plain and simple," said Mr. McCauley. "When politicians pocket these funds, they convert a campaign contribution into a special interest funded retirement account."

One of those lawmakers agrees.

"I would not have pocketed mine. That is not the purpose for which people gave it," said Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, a 13-term GOP congressman from Michigan, who was defeated in a primary last month. "I just think clearly on the face of that, it's offensive."

Mr. Vander Jagt, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was eligible to keep about $156,000 from his campaign war chest.

But the congressman spent it all in his failed re-election bid and now has a debt he described as "in the thousands of dollars."

Mr. Vander Jagt predicts that most of the members retiring with money will not pocket the campaign cash but will retain control through the creation of a foundation or a political action committee.

"I don't find anything wrong with that," he said.

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