Former Congressman Steve LaTourette never shied away from his affinity for Ohio State football.
Nor was it a secret that he used his campaign funds every year to purchase season tickets. Despite Federal Elections Commission rules that specifically ban campaigns from buying tickets to sporting events, LaTourette, a former prosecutor in Lake County, did it for years.
But an exclusive Channel 3 News investigation, undertaken with TEGNA news stations across the country and the Tampa Bay Times, found LaTourette continued using campaign money after retiring from Congress, and after his death.
LaTourette’s activities were among dozens of other political campaigns cited by the news investigation that appear to conflict with FEC regulations. These so-called “Zombie Campaigns” involve retired politicians who never closed their campaign war chests, but rather treated the funds as personal slush accounts.
The year-long investigation, involving a million pages of campaign finance reports, found examples of ongoing spending, even in cases such as LaTourette, where the officeholder was dead.
Example after example show the FEC, in fact, does little to enforce its own loose restrictions that guide what campaigns can and cannot do.
"We're seeing them spend money on some strange things and I think the people who police the campaign fund reports aren't as diligent as they should be," said Sandy Theis, executor director of ProgressOhio.
Noah Bookbinder is a former federal prosecutor and current executive director for nonprofit watchdog group CREW: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. He has helped file lawsuits against politicians who use campaign money as personal slush funds. But even he was surprised at what the TEGNA/Times investigation uncovered, including a list of over 100 former congressmembers, senators, and presidential candidates still spending campaign money, long after retiring or dying.
“It’s really shameful when you see this many people exploiting the system,” Bookbinder said.
After retiring in 2012, LaTourette used his campaign fund four times to purchase season tickets to Ohio State football games. The last came in the spring of 2016, for about $2,800. He died later that summer of cancer.
He had over $1.2 million in total contributions in 2012. It totals now under $60,000. His campaign, however, continues to spend.
Over the years, and after his death, his campaign has been the most generous donor to the campaign of his daughter, state Rep. Sarah LaTourette. Records show $33,655 overall and $2,000 after his death.
FEC rules recommend, but do not require, campaigns to close when politicians retire or die. That’s how LaTourette’s campaign treasurer and Highland Heights Mayor Scott Coleman continues to receive regular $500 payments to spend the deceased politician’s funds.
"I think it’s troubling,” said Dr. David B. Cohen, a University of Akron professor and assistant director of the college’s Bliss Institute.
Coleman did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails seeking comment. Sarah LaTourette declined to answer questions about the donations her campaign received.
There are other examples of politicians helping family members win an election. U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula retired in 2008 but his campaign fund continued spending for years, heavily funding small-town campaigns for relatives with donations ranging from $1,500 to $15,000.
Sen. Paul Gillmor died in 2007, but his campaign went on to purchase about $1,500 to frame artwork and make thousands in political contributions.
Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones appears to have followed FEC guidelines. She died in 2008 and records show her campaign fund closed down shortly afterward, paying down the account for office moving expenses and shredding of “sensitive documents.”
But the TEGNA/Times investigation found politicians using funds for travel, club memberships and jobs for friends and families. It also found Rep Mark Takano, D-California, who is pushing a bill designed to close the loophole spending that runs rampant in Washington.
"It's very difficult to change anything if you're not in the majority," Takano said.