As former Vice President Al Gore mulled a White House run late last year, he used a campaign finance loophole to send $100,000 he raised two years ago for the Florida recount to bolster his position in the first two states where presidential candidates test their mettle.
IRS forms reveal disbursements on Oct. 24, 2002 to the Iowa Democratic Party Coordinated Campaign ($25,000), New Hampshire Senate Democratic Caucus ($20,000), New Hampshire Democratic Party ($30,000) and Iowa's Truman Fund ($25,000). The donations came 10 days after Gore made a two-day trip to Iowa, where he attended fundraisers for Democratic candidates.
Some have raised ethical questions about the expenditures, saying the Gore campaign should not have spent recount money to run for president.
"He should not have been using the recount donations for future political office," said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan organization that studies the government and campaign finance reform. "The people gave the money to the recount for the purpose of recounting votes. Should he be allowed to do this? The answer is no."
Many campaign finance analysts have raised questions about the sort of soft money loophole Gore took advantage of because it allows candidates for federal office to receive unrestricted large donations that they would not be able to receive through a conventional political committee regulated by the Federal Election Commission. The Gore-Lieberman Recount Committee, for example, accepted nine contributions of $100,000 or more from individual donors like Mouse Systems founder Steven Kirsch ($500,000), movie producer Stephen Bing ($200,000) and actress Jane Fonda ($100,000). In fact, the Center for Public Integrity found that almost two out of three dollars used by his recount committee came from large donors giving $25,000 or more.
Republicans have also taken issue with the money's use for potential election efforts after it was originally collected to recount votes in Florida following the 2000 presidential election. What's more, they point out, the expenditures to Iowa and New Hampshire may help the presidential campaign of Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. because both states have historically played a critical role in the nomination process as the first states to hold primaries. Iowa is slated to hold its caucuses on Jan. 19, 2004, and New Hampshire is scheduled for Jan. 27, 2004. To make some of the donations, the Gore-Lieberman Recount Committee registered itself as a Political Action Committee in at least one state, New Hampshire, and the donations may help Lieberman in primary elections because the donations come from a PAC that bears his name.
"I can tell you we have not had any contact with the Gore-Lieberman Recount Committee," Adam Kovacevich, spokesperson for Sen. Lieberman, told the Center.
But will the disbursements ultimately help Lieberman's campaign? "The sense was that that [contribution] was Gore money," Mark Daley, communications director of the Iowa Democratic Party, said. "But there's a great deal of donations being made."
The Center was unable to contact Gore, but Allison Sharpe, accountant for the Gore-Lieberman Recount Committee said her "understanding is that Al Gore makes those decisions" about expenditures by the committee.
While this disclosure raises ethical questions about use of the recount funds, it also may be a further indication that Gore was taking serious steps toward running for president before withdrawing his name from public consideration. The use of the recount fund may also be a reflection of Gore's limitations in fundraising, which was rumored to be one of the main reasons for bowing out.
Gore's expenditures came as a surprise because the apparent inactive recount committee has been stagnant lately — not spending any funds for almost a year. Prior to the disbursements to Iowa and New Hampshire, Gore's recount fund appears to have almost exclusively spent its money on legal bills related to Florida.
It is unknown whether the Gore-Lieberman Recount Committee will continue to make donations. The fund may still have a surplus of close to $235,000, according to filed reports, which show $3.7 million in contributions and only $3.5 million in expenditures.
The Gore-Lieberman Recount Committee, a soft money account, also gave $75,000 to the Florida Democratic Party, $50,000 to Victory 2002, the Coordinated Campaign for the Tennessee Democratic Party and $10,000 to the Louisiana Democratic Party during the last two reporting periods of 2002. Other 527s — soft money accounts associated with presidential candidates — have also spent more than half a million dollars in primary states, including those linked to Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
As for the Bush-Cheney Recount, it actually appears to be in a deficit of $2.7 million after filing showing papers that it raised $11.1 million and spent $13.8 million. But media reports explain that this disparity in funding comes from unreported individual contributions of less than $200 that the 527 is not obligated to disclose.
Center for Public Integrity Database Editor Aron Pilhofer contributed to this report.