Stockman refunds questionable campaign contributions

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Rep. Steve Stockman's campaign over the weekend informed the Federal Election Commission it has refunded $15,000 in contributions made eight months ago by two House employees, an apparent violation of campaign finance law.

The Saturday filing marked the second time in less than a week that Stockman's campaign changed its accounts over the contributions–$7,500 from special assistant Tom Dodd, who previously denied making donations, and $7,500 from special projects director Jason Posey (who's also listed on finance reports as being the campaign treasurer). Both changes came only after the Sunlight Foundation raised questions about the contributions, initially attributed to parents of the staffers.

Both parents — Dodd's mother and Posey's father — were listed by the Stockman campaign as having given three $2,500 donations on Feb. 21 for a total of $7,500 apiece or $15,000 altogether. Contacted by The Sunlight Foundation, Jane Dodd denied giving the campaign any money. Tom Dodd–Jane's son–also told Sunlight he hadn't given to the campaign.

Yet on the same day that Houston-based Culture Map published a story based on the Sunlight report, Stockman's campaign amended his campaign financial disclosure to say that the staffers had made the donations, equivalent to a sizeable chunk of their congressional salaries.

House disbursement records show both Posey and Dodd were paid "personnel compensation" on Stockman's House staff during the Jan. 1 to June 30 reporting period. The House financial data show Posey was paid $29,666.67 in salary in the first six months of this year; Dodd earned 24,972.24. In spite of these records, though, Stockman's latest campaign finance report lists Dodd as being employed by "Dodd and Associates," with his occupation given as "Fundraising."

After the Sunlight Foundation pointed out the potential legal violation in the revised version of the contributions  — federal campaign law bars congressional staff from donating to their bosses' political campaigns — Stockman's campaign filed notice of the refunds. It's unclear if a refund has been issued directly to Tom Dodd, but if so, it would put the campaign in the uncomfortable position of refunding money to someone who's already claimed publicly to have never donated.

Saturday's filing from Stockman's campaign committee all but acknowledges that claiming the staffers as the source of the money isn't quite kosher. Refunds were being made, the committee wrote "as the corrections may have deemed them not permissible."

House financial records for the third quarter have yet to be released, and numerous calls to Stockman's office last week went unreturned; it's unclear if Dodd and Posey still work there. 

Fundraising has lately been a priority for Stockman, who took office in January. Stockman had served one term in Congress previously, between 1994 and 1996, and made a comeback last year. But a hard-fought 2012 runoff campaign against an opponent who put $600,000 of his own money into the race left Stockman's campaign committee with $195,000 in debts and less than $3,700 in the bank as of the end of last year. While it's not unusual for candidates to lend themselves large sums of money during the campaign, the majority of debt owed by Stockman at the end of 2012–$105,000 in all–was listed as compensation for campaign staffers. Six different campaign workers were owed more than $10,000 apiece; Jason Posey was owed $1,500. Stockman too was owed money. He'd lent the campaign $90,000 of his own money.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are a wealthy group, and while the once-homeless Stockman appears relatively well off, he's not rich by House standards. A 2012 disclosure form noted he'd earned $200,000 from "Presidential Trust Marketing" in 2012 and $150,000 in 2011, and his wife, a NASA employee, made $115,000 in 2012 and $112,000 in 2011. But the filing showed less than $15,000 in investments, though personal real estate and federal retirement accounts are excluded. A Texas Tribune project found the couple owned at least $550,000 in real estate–a house in Texas and another in Washington D.C.

Stockman, who once described himself as the most conservative member of Congress and more recently hired the former lobbyist for Gun Owners of America as his legislative director, would seem to have a natural fundraising base.  But his brand of publicity–which included threatening President Barack Obama with impeachment for executive actions taken in favor of gun control — seems not to have paid off. Despite substantial investment in raising money, Stockman's political committee has struggled to bring in more than it spends, and still owed $163,000 in debts as of Sept. 30, including $69,010 in compensation to staff members. Stockman himself lent the campaign $12,000 more earlier this year.

More troubling, perhaps, for Stockman's campaign committee, is the chronology of filings and amendments for its campaign finance reports for the first quarter of this year:

  • When the report landed in April, the $15,000 in contributions were listed as having come from Dodd's mother, Jane Dodd, at her Delaware residence, and from Donnie Posey, at a Mississippi address.
  • An amended version of that report, filed July 13 continued the apparent mistake.
  • Only after Sunlight reported that Jane Dodd claimed not to have made the donation did Stockman's campaign amend the report again, now claiming the contributions came from the Tom Dodd and Jason Posey.
  • A memo filed with the new report claimed that the changes were all the result of a mistake. 

"The amended contributions were attributed to family members as a result of miscommunication with accounting about joint charitable donations and family/personal funds.  In recording the transactions, contributions were erroneously recorded in the other family member's name.  Upon realizing this error, we made the necessary correction. This situation did not and does not involve any excessive contributions or the need to reattribute excess contributions to another person."

Simply changing the name a donation came from struck campaign finance watchdogs as dubious. "This looks like some contributions were made in violation of the ban on straw donors," Paul Ryan, the Senior Legal Counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, told the Sunlight Foundation last week. After Sunlight reported that the revised donations–now attributed to house staff members barred from donating–were possibly prohibited, the campaign amended the filing again, this time adding a note that refunds had been issued.

(Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr)