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How Conrad, Dorgan spent millions left in their war chests

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Former U.S. Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan left politics with millions of dollars saved up for campaigns that never happened.

Their money didn’t just disappear.

Together, Dorgan and Conrad used more than $1.4 million of their old campaign cash to support fellow Democrats’ congressional campaigns, transferred another $1 million to the state party and gave tens of thousands to back North Dakota Democrats in statewide and legislative races.

The two former senators paid for flights, catering and expensive meals, gifts and hotel rooms using leftover campaign cash, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Conrad, for instance, spent nearly $5,000 of his $1.6 million stash just on flowers.

Dorgan donated $1 million of his $4.2 million to the Aspen Institute to set up the Center for Native American Youth, of which Dorgan was made board chairman. Dorgan doesn’t receive compensation for his work.

Dorgan announced his retirement in early 2010 and Conrad followed the next year. The two represented North Dakota for 56 years in Washington, D.C., before leaving office. Former North Dakota Reps. Earl Pomeroy and Rick Berg didn’t have that kind of money to spend after losing elections in 2010 and 2012, respectively.

Conrad and Dorgan’s spending — not only perfectly legal in the eyes of federal law, but also common among ex-lawmakers — highlights what campaign finance experts say are incredibly lax regulations on election money. And those regulations don’t change after a candidate exits a race.

There’s really only one rule: So long as it’s not pocketed or used for explicitly personal expenses, anything goes.

Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, called the personal use ban extremely narrow. He explained it like this: If he were to run for Congress, he couldn’t use campaign funds to pay off his mortgage because that expense would exist whether or not he was angling for office.

But dinners in D.C. and flights across the country? Fair game.

“Campaign finance laws concern themselves with money going into the system and preventing corruption. Campaign finance laws, for the most part, don’t concern themselves with how the money is spent once it’s raised,” Ryan said. “There’s virtually no regulation beyond disclosure.”

Check here, check there

Almost three years after leaving office, Dorgan’s campaign is still technically active, with $230,000 on hand as of the end of September, according to FEC filings.

Dorgan spent much of his campaign war chest refunding donors who requested their money back — $1.1 million worth. He also spent more than a million to back Democratic politicians, including $500,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — which in turn doles out money to liberal Senate candidates. That’s on top of nearly $50,000 Dorgan gave directly to congressional candidates’ campaigns, and more than $820,000 to the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party.

“I don’t know if it’s an expectation” that retiring lawmakers turn over excess cash to members of their party, Dorgan said in an interview last week.

“It’s what I did,” he said.

Dorgan also used nearly $30,000 of leftover cash to pay for meals and catering after announcing his retirement in January 2010, according to his campaign’s FEC filings. Almost all of that spending occurred before he officially left office in early 2011, and Dorgan said it was all connected to politics.

Conrad could not be reached for comment for this story, but his FEC filings paint a similar picture. He gave more than $730,000 to Senate Democrats from January 2011, when he announced his retirement, until he left office and shut down his campaign early this year. Conrad also turned over $230,000 to the state Democratic Party, spent $32,000 on food and almost $31,000 on flights.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that kind of spending of old campaign funds on travel and food isn’t rare when lawmakers leave office. Nor is it uncommon that Dorgan’s campaign is still running — there are several members of Congress who died in office but still have active campaigns, she said.

The problem, Sloan said, is that lawmakers have too much latitude to spend down their campaign caches. In the past, retiring or defeated politicians would simply donate it all to charity.

These days, Sloan said there are several ethically questionable options: rolling the money into a separate political action committee, or PAC, which has even fewer restrictions; using the cash to buy influence in Washington as a lobbyist; and continuing to pay staff long after the campaign has wound down.

“Members tend to raise money for their campaign committees even when they know they’re going to leave,” she said.

Dorgan said he has no future political purpose for his remaining cash, and plans to spend it down by continuing to donate to campaigns and charities.

Winding down

None of the four recently departed North Dakota lawmakers have taken an increasingly common route with their leftover cash — transferring it into a PAC. At least not yet.

More than a year after his failed attempt to jump to the U.S. Senate, former Rep. Berg’s official campaign has about $22,000 in the bank.

Jonathan Casper, who worked on Berg’s race against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp as an FEC compliance and finance consultant, said the campaign is still winding down and paying off bills.

Casper noted the fluid nature of the FEC’s campaign finance system, which requires candidates to submit reports on a quarterly basis. A check cut in January may have actually covered an expense from before the November election, like several of Berg’s payments for advertisements.

Once all the bills are paid, Casper said Berg may decide to put whatever money is left into a PAC, which generally has higher limits on how much can be donated to other campaigns and looser restrictions on personal use.

That’s not an option for former Rep. Pomeroy, the Democrat who lost North Dakota’s lone seat in the House to Berg in 2010. Pomeroy quickly wrapped up his campaign, paying off compliance and consulting bills before terminating his organization in March 2011.

Pomeroy himself sent his campaign about $1,500 to balance its books.

“That was not about the next campaign. That was about cleaning up and locking the door,” said Pomeroy, now working as a health care lobbyist. “I spent what I had, I got beat, and I went on to another line of business.”

Kyle Potter
Kyle Potter is an enterprise reporter at the Forum. He came to Fargo-Moorhead in May 2013 after stints at the Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minnesota Daily. 
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