Two things were notable about MUR 6672, released last week by the Federal Election Commission, which involved the payment of $805.13 by Florida U.S. Representative Gus Bilirakis’ campaign to the Royal Order of Jesters for membership dues. The Commission deadlocked on party lines over whether there was reason to believe that Representative Bilirakis illegally converted campaign funds to his personal use through the payment.
First, the matter showed how what is supposed to be a black-and-white test for personal use can create sharp disagreement in practice. The law prohibits candidates from using campaign funds to pay any expense that would exist irrespective of candidacy. It deems certain types of expenses to fall into this category automatically. These include “dues, fees or gratuities to a country club, health club, recreational facility or other nonpolitical organization.”
But, as the FEC explained in 1995, “the rule is not so broad as to limit legitimate candidate related or officeholder related activity—”
The rule also allows a candidate or officeholder to use campaign funds to pay membership dues in an organization that may have political interests. This would include community or civic organizations that a candidate or officeholder joins in his or her district in order to maintain political contacts with constituents or the business community. Even though these organizations are not considered political organizations under 26 U.S.C. 527, they will be considered to have political aspects for the purposes of this rule.
The debate in MUR 6672 was over the types of organizations to which this allowance applies. Recommending further enforcement, the FEC’s Office of General Counsel interpreted the allowance narrowly, leaning heavily on its seeming limitation to politically interested organizations. It found nothing political whatsoever about the Royal Order of Jesters, a Masonic fraternal group whose “sole purpose is fostering mirth and friendship.” If a congressman could use campaign funds to pay dues to the Jesters to build relationships, it reasoned, then he must be able to use them to join a country club or health club, too, which the law expressly forbids. In its turn, the Bilirakis campaign emphasized the Jesters’ qualifications “as a civic or community organization.” It may be left to the Commissioners’ statements of reasons to explain precisely what “political aspects” an organization must have, in order to support a candidate’s use of campaign funds to pay its dues.
Second, a Commission outcome on a personal use question does not guarantee the matter’s resolution, at least practically. No fewer than three enforcement bodies evaluate claims of personal use: the FEC, the House Committee on Ethics, and the Office of Congressional Ethics. This is because House rules separately prohibit personal use, while requiring that Members also maintain documentation to show that their campaign funds are used for bona fide political purposes. OCE, the independent office that refers matters to the Ethics Committee for enforcement, has recently shown a willingness to weigh in on technical FEC questions. This could, at least in theory, result in inconsistent outcomes, a possibility the three entities show no recent sign of having considered.