Moseley-Braun campaign fund audited

April 03, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- It was a historic campaign that generated millions of dollars in donations. Telemarketers worked the phones, direct mailings asked for dollars, and checks from $5 to $5,000 poured in.

Two years later, federal election authorities are conducting an unusual wide-ranging audit of the campaign funds of Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., and are finding possible breaches of federal election law.

In the last six months of 1993, Ms. Moseley-Braun's campaign committee, which is $600,000 in debt, paid nearly $40,000 to the team of attorneys handling the audit for them. And as part of its defense of the fund-raising practices, the campaign committee recently hired a third Washington law firm specializing in campaign finance law.

The hiring of Oldaker, Ryan & Leonard is just one indication that the Federal Election Commission auditors have raised serious questions about the campaign funds.

Last month, the senator disclosed in campaign finance reports that her political committee must return $71,000 in contributions to donors. At that time, the committee didn't describe what kind of contributions the committee had improperly received and was refunding.

It said only that the donations "initially appeared acceptable" but that the committee had not been able to verify within 30 days that the contributions were legal, as stipulated by federal law.

A review of the campaign records shows that the $71,000 in donations included up to $20,000 in illegal donations from corporations and labor unions, as well as contributions from individuals who had exceeded the federal limit of $1,000.

Campaign records and interviews show that, in some cases, Ms. Moseley-Braun's political committee cashed checks that were drawn on corporate business accounts, listed the donor as the person who had signed the check instead of the corporation, then spent the funds in her 1992 Senate race in violation of federal law.

Most of the checks from corporations were for small amounts, and the donations from the corporations never were disclosed publicly because they didn't exceed $200. Federal election law requires the candidate to disclose the name and occupation for larger donations.

In some cases, no record of the contribution appears in Ms. Moseley-Braun's campaign finance reports, other than the recent disclosure that the contribution was being refunded.

Chicago attorney Louis Vitullo, one of the attorneys handling the case, said Ms. Moseley-Braun's campaign finance problems stemmed from the massive movement that made her the first black woman in the U.S. Senate.

"In a sense, she is a victim of her own success," he said. "Her campaign elicited a response that was unprecedented."

Federal election law takes into account that candidates might have difficulty in determining what is an appropriate contribution, especially in the kind of expensive race that Ms. Moseley-Braun ran. She spent $6.7 million.

The law allows candidates to accept a questionable donation, but it then imposes strict requirements to verify the donation's legality.

The law requires a political committee either to deposit a questionable contribution into a separate account where it can't be spent or to hold back reserves to cover the amounts of all questionable donations it receives. The committee then is supposed to contact the donor and try to determine whether the contribution was legal.

If it cannot be determined that the contribution was legal, the campaign must refund the donation within 30 days of receipt.

And according to federal law, if the campaign later discovers that the contribution was illegal it must refund the donation within 30 days.

If the committee lacks money to pay back the donor upon the discovery of an illegal donation, the committee must use the first available funds to refund the contribution.

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