Political Benefactors Wanted: Dead or Alive

By Teresa Ambord
 
Some people are so passionate about politics they won't let anything get in their way. Not even a little thing like, well . . . death. USA TODAY recently analyzed data available from the Federal Election Commission and came up with some interesting findings: 
  • At least thirty-two dead Americans donated upwards of $586,000 to presidential and congressional campaigns in the last four years. 
  • A sizeable chunk of that total  $245,000 – went to one national party. 
But . . . isn't that illegal? Not really. In 2010, the Supreme Court made a ruling known as Citizens United, which established campaign laws that allow Americans to make political contributions through their estates. The ruling also struck down limits on independent spending by corporations and unions, helping to pave the way for super political action committees (PACs) to accept giant contributions. However, in making the Citizens United ruling, the Supreme Court also upheld the limits on contributions directly to candidates and political parties of $5,200 per candidate, per election cycle (or $32,400 per year to a political party). 
 
Recent large donations have attracted a lot of attention, because at first glance, they appear to have been made after the donors had passed away: 
  • In April 2013, a donor gave $100,000 to his favorite PAC two months after he died, or so it seemed. But the actual gift was made the day before he died and was misreported. 
  • In another case, a woman who had died was credited with a donation to a PAC in the amount of $7,500. But the donation was actually made by her husband, using a joint credit card. 
  • Then there was the $38,000 donation to one party's national committee and a presidential campaign. The woman was a Hewlett Packard tech developer from San Francisco. While the donation at first appeared to have been made post-death, her sister explained the woman had put the donation in her will two weeks before she died in the hope of ensuring the party and presidential candidate of her choice were victorious. 
Stefan Passantino, a campaign finance attorney in Washington, DC, acknowledges it's a legitimate option for people to make politicians and political parties the beneficiaries of their estates. Often they believe "the best thing I can do with my money is to help make the world a better place," said Passantino. But again, the limits have to be respected. In each of the cases described above, the problem lies in the reporting of the donations rather than the actual timing of the donation.
 
Sometimes, however, inappropriate donations from the deceased are not a matter of misreporting. In fact, one of those donations has sparked a case which is now in the federal appellate court in Washington, DC. It centers on a donation of $217,000 made to one political party in 2007. The donation greatly exceeded the limit of $32,400. 
 
The political party that received the bequest seeks to throw out contribution limits on those who have passed away, arguing it should have gotten the money in a lump sum as the donor seemed to intend. Instead, a trust has distributed the money in pieces. As of now, the party has received $153,200. This makes the donor the top deceased giver to any party or federal candidate in the last several years.
 
Only time will tell if the lawsuit will gain any ground, as more and more people seem to be leaving money through their estates as a way to support their political passions. The idea of contribution limits is to curb corruption. But the party bringing the federal lawsuit argues, you can't corrupt someone after you die. The jury is still out on that one.
 

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