A little digging into FEC disclosures


A while back, Jim Geraghty of the Campaign Spot wrote a pair of interesting posts, the first noting that, during his 2000 campaign to unseat Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., Barack Obama took “on credit card debt to finance his effort,” while the second raised additional questions but seemed to put the credit card issue to rest, by quoting a New York Times article that looked at the campaign committee’s finances:

When Mr. Obama decided to run for Congress in 2000 against the former Black Panther Bobby Rush, he used a $9,500 personal loan to help finance the campaign. When he lost, he found himself broke and fielding questions from the Federal Election Commission about his campaign finances. He later had to lend his campaign committee $11,100 more to cover refunds to donors who had inadvertently given too much.

It took him two years to repay his own loans, mostly with small checks from black executives who agreed to help him prepare for another run.

In his first post, Geraghty also quotes a book, Obama: From Promise to Power, by Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, who writes of the couple’s finances some time after Obama’s 2000 run for Congress: “He had maxed out his credit card, partly on campaign expenses, and the couple were both repaying student loans from Harvard.”

Federal Election Commission records seem contradict both the Times story and the book passage.

Take the issue of maxing out the credit card, partly on campaign expenses. Federal election regulations require candidates, when they loan money to their committee, to specify whether the funds are coming from personal sources (defined here as being either assets or income) or from a lender, whether it’s a financial institution or a friend. The 2000 Obama campaign started receiving letters in July 2001 — here’s one example — from the FEC asking for clarification on the source of the loans to the campaign. The letter says, in part,

If the candidate borrowed the funds from a lending institution or some other source, please provide the name of the lending institution and the complete terms of the loan.

The amended, year-end disclosure report for 2000, filed on Nov. 22, 2002 notes, as several of the other filings do, that the source of the loans was personal funds–not from a lending institution (a credit card company would certainly count as such). On pages 13 and 14 the disclosure, the reports state that Obama made two, $2,000 loans to his committee, the first on Jan. 25, 2000 and the second on Feb. 22, 2000, both from personal funds, and both to be repaid at a 7 percent interest rate. Page 15 shows a third loan, of $5,500, made on March 21, 2000, also carrying a 7 percent interest rate. Though the notation that the loan is from “personal funds” is missing, there’s no indication that the $5,500 was charged to a credit card.

The Obama 2000 committee did have credit cards of its own, the disclosures show, and there were outstanding balances on them, but that wouldn’t have had any impact on Obama’s credit card bills (and certainly wouldn’t max them out). It’s certainly possible that Obama ran up credit card debt for personal expenses while running for office. Campaigning cuts into the time candidates would otherwise devote to earning a living, which is one reason why so many of our elected officials come from financially comfortable backgrounds. And it’s also possible that Obama charged legitimate campaign expenses to his personal credit card and then failed to get reimbursed from the campaign for the items, though it’s not clear why he would do that.

I’ll take a look at the repayment of the loans a bit later.