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On Death and Campaign Cash

Dealing with the estate of someone who dies without a will or clear wishes can be difficult for the survivors. Who gets the house? The car? The family heirlooms? And when members of Congress pass away, there's an additional question to answer: What happens to their campaign cash?

Under current law, when lawmakers die the money left over in their reelection accounts are under the legal control of their campaign treasurers. Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) (D-N.C.) wants to change that, and the House Administration Committee approved a Jones-authored bill today that would allow each member to designate a person to be in charge of their campaign account if they die.

Jones told Capitol Briefing that in the course of crafting the bill, he realized that "not many members have thought about it. ... Most members don't even know about this."

Unfortunately for Jones, he has some first-hand experience with the current law. His father, Rep. Walter Jones Sr. (R-N.C.), died in 1992 in the middle of his 13th term in Congress.

"When they tried to settle my father's estate, the treasurer said, 'I own the account,'" Jones recalled. Fortunately, the treasurer was a family friend and was able to dispense with the money according to the family's wishes, but the process was complicated and confusing, Jones said.

(As dictated by his will, Jones Sr.'s campaign money - roughly $280,000 -- actually went to his wife and two children. He was among the last House members who were legally allowed to take "excess" campaign funds for personal use. The practice was banned in 1979, except for lawmakers who were already in office at the time. In 1989, that exemption was lifted, forcing everyone to comply by 1993. Because Jones Sr. died in 1992, his family was legally allowed to take his leftover campaign money.)

The Joneses were fortunate to have a family friend serving as treasurer. Many members simply use a hired operative to hold the position, someone who may run dozens of campaign accounts and would have little or no relationship with the lawmaker or his or her family. In the worst-case scenario, a treasurer might even embezzle money from the campaign.

"If a member dies, wouldn't it be better for his wife ... to determine how to disburse the funds?" Jones said.

With personal use of funds now prohibited, deceased lawmakers' campaign cash often goes to charity. For example, the campaign account of the late Rep. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.) ended up dispensing more than $675,000 to various charities after he died in 2007.

As for Jones, he said that "if I got killed Friday," he knows who would be best positioned to decide which charities should get his campaign money -- his wife, not his treasurer.

UPDATE 1:45 pm ET: Before passing Jones' bill today, the House Administration panel approved two amendments to the measure. The first allows members to designate a second individual to handle their campaign cash if the first person also dies or does not want the responsibility. The second amendment says that when members file paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to designate those individuals, they can also file "the candidate's instructions regarding the disbursement of the funds involved." So members can simply pick someone to handle their campaign cash if they die, or they can go a step further and specify where they want the money to go.

By Ben Pershing  |  April 2, 2008; 1:18 PM ET
Categories:  Ethics and Rules , Fundraising Circuit  
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Jones is a R from NC

Posted by: Anonymous | April 3, 2008 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Walter Jones Jr. is R-NC. He switched parties during the Republican Revolution. Walter Jones Sr. is D-NC.

Posted by: Sam | April 5, 2008 2:45 AM | Report abuse

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