Mfume has $188,000 at his disposal Campaign funds go with him when he leaves House Sunday

NAACP possible beneficiary

He also could finance a return to politics or other candidates

February 12, 1996|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When Rep. Kweisi Mfume resigns from Congress Sunday to head the NAACP, he will retain control of as much as $188,000 in leftover campaign funds -- money he could use to help erase the organization's $3.2 million debt, to bolster the campaigns of other politicians or to help finance a possible return to politics.

Mr. Mfume is the second Marylander to leave Capitol Hill in the past year with a substantial campaign kitty. Helen Delich Bentley had nearly $42,000 when she left the House in January 1995 to pursue an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for governor. She still has $36,000 in her campaign treasury.

Mr. Mfume, a five-term Baltimore Democrat, said last week that he is "not at the point of focusing" on the disposition of his campaign money, but he added that one option is to save it for a future political race.

Charitable donations are one possible use of the funds sanctioned by federal election law. Saying he has "several favorite charities," Mr. Mfume put the struggling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People "clearly at the top of my list of priorities."

"It becomes a rainy-day fund or seed money for a campaign," he said. "There are so many different things it can be used for."

Mr. Mfume, who was tapped for the NAACP post in December, had a balance of $188,456.80 in his campaign account on Dec. 31, according to a report filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Even though he no longer is seeking re-election, Mr. Mfume is permitted to use the money "to defray any ordinary and necessary expenses" of being a member of Congress, for donations to other political candidates and for charitable contributions.

He continued to spend campaign funds after his Dec. 9 announcement that he would leave Congress -- among other things paying $1,245 for a "supporters' dinner" at the Stouffer Renaissance Harborplace Hotel in downtown Baltimore, $2,243 to Ford Motor Credit Corp. for a vehicle lease and $615 for rental of his campaign headquarters.

Once he no longer has congressional expenses, according to the FEC, he may donate leftover campaign funds to charity or to other political candidates. Or, as Mr. Mfume suggests, he might hold the money for a future campaign.

Whatever he does, Mr. Mfume, like all former lawmakers, must report the status of his campaign funds to the FEC semiannually until the money is spent.

Since January 1993, no retiring member of Congress has been allowed to convert leftover funds to his own use. That practice had prompted severe criticism.

"The worst abuse was eliminated" when personal use of the funds was halted, said Don Simon, executive vice president of Common Cause.

But the leftover money still "provides them with a lot of power in terms of their ability to buy influence," Mr. Simon said.

Mrs. Bentley, for example, used for political donations more than one-third of the $130,000 in congressional campaign funds she still had when she announced her gubernatorial candidacy on Nov. 10, 1993. The donations included

$12,000 to her own campaign, $4,000 of that last year to help pay off her debt from that race.

Mrs. Bentley had $41,975.39 in her campaign treasury when she left Congress and now has $36,007.32.

Most of the money she spent between entering the governor's race and leaving office in January 1995 went for political donations, rent and utilities at the separate congressional campaign office that she maintained until early 1994, telephones, entertainment, postage and the expenses of closing her congressional office.

In the weeks before the Sept. 13, 1994, primary, when her once huge lead in the polls over Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the eventual GOP nominee, was beginning to erode, Mrs. Bentley doled out $21,000 to other GOP candidates on the ballot with her.

A handful of the candidates who received donations -- most of which were sent on Sept. 1, 1994 -- said they didn't view it as an effort to boost the flagging Bentley campaign.

"Nobody told me there were any strings attached to that money at all," said Robert G. Pepersack Sr., who got $500 for his failed re-election campaign for Anne Arundel County sheriff.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Baltimore County Republican who got $1,000 for his successful campaign to succeed Mrs. Bentley, said Mrs. Bentley "was giving money to to people who had been her supporters. We all do it."

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