Monday, September 19, 2011

Rise of embezzlement in campaign accounts

There's a very interesting and disturbing story in Bloomberg News that hits close to home with me. I've long been preaching about how important it is to get a good and trustworthy treasurer if you are running a campaign or forming a PAC. Some of my previous posts on this area are as follows.

Shameless business plug for my company, posted in 2009

2006 - What not to do. This was one of the inspirations of me forming the business.

From 2008 - Report on an embezzlement

From Bloomberg

Representative Susan Davis’ latest letter to supporters said: “We have been robbed!!”

Davis, 67, is one of several California Democrats whose campaign accounts were allegedly looted during the past year by their treasurer, Kinde Durkee. On Sept. 10, Davis sent out the appeal to begin rebuilding her account.

Five days after Durkee’s arrest in Burbank on Sept. 2, Representative Frank LoBiondo’s former campaign treasurer was sentenced to 30 months in prison for embezzling more than $450,000 from the New Jersey Republican’s campaign committee.

As candidates raise more money for their campaigns, there is greater opportunity for nefarious treasurers to embezzle campaign cash from politicians accustomed to putting their careers in the hands of consultants, aides and volunteers, said Michael Toner, a former Federal Election Commission chairman.

I'm not surprised at this at all, and it has nothing to do with partisanship. Campaigns are getting more expensive. I had sole control of a small non-political account one time and still wrote a $20,000 check. Reminded me of tuition. When you have that type of control, and the knowledge to go with it, it's not hard for a bad guy to put the money where it doesn't belong. One thing I insist on when doing this work to protect my myself is to make sure somebody else, preferably the candidate or campaign manager, sign any checks that go to my company.

Right now is in particularly dangerous time with these issues. Campaigns are in transitional mode. Candidates HATE this part of the campaign, with a passion. Fundraising they don't like. Administrative work they despise. Treasurers are often a volunteer who is very close to the candidate. Those that do the research and find out what they are in for get scared and either get bogged down and overwhelmed or look for a professional or someone who can freelance as a professional due to an accounting background elsewhere or something else. A friend of a friend. A cold call. That person often has total control. Keep in mind that this business is based all on trust. Candidates often trust campaign managers and/or treasurers with everything, and the friend of the friend is placed with the same trust. That unfortunately sometimes backfires.

Such thefts are “almost entirely preventable,” said David Mason, another Federal Election Commission chairman who is a senior vice president at Washington-based Aristotle Inc., a political consulting company. “Politicians still want to rely on trust. It’s a personal business.”

Election lawyers said thefts are increasing as campaign treasuries grow and candidates rely on the same person to pay the bills and track the expenses. The average House member spent $1.4 million to win election in 2010, compared with $840,300 a decade earlier, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks campaign spending.

Some of those races are about 1/10th that amount. Others are 20 million plus. Regardless of it being a 25K race or 25 million race,, it's still serious money, and a lot of power given to a treasurer. I can do a lot with 450K. Three things I can do with that are to destroy my name and reputation, betray those who trusted me, and go to club fed. No thanks. I'll use that 450K for its intended purpose, the campaign. Others obviously haven't and are now in prison. Some are probably getting away with it.

This is one of the best quotes I've seen. Leave it to an in-house attorney to say it best.

These officeholders flip over the keys to these professional treasurers in a way they would never do for their own savings,” said former National Republican Senatorial Committee general counsel Craig Engle, founder of Arent Fox LLP’s political law group and treasurer of the firm’s political action committee. “The more time an officeholder is spending going over his spending, the less effective a candidate he or she will be.”

As a professional treasurer/record keeper, that's true. With all the requirements, candidates, especially in large areas, don't want to deal with this stuff. Neither do their campaign managers. "Dan, take care of this. Do whatever needs to be done." "Got it." Candidates want to meet people, knock on doors, and get their name out in a positive way. They want to be talking to me about in house business as little as possible. It doesn't gain them the votes they need to win.

Here's more.

Professional Treasurers

In the past, treasurers were often family friends or prominent local figures, Engle said. As record-keeping became more complicated, candidates brought in professionals, with no personal connections to them, to handle the job. They found them by word-of-mouth and recommendations; Durkee could sign checks on more than 400 bank accounts, including an undisclosed number of political committees, according to an Federal Bureau of Investigation affidavit.

“As politics has become a regulated industry, the need for professional treasurers, or campaign finance officers, has increased dramatically,” Engle said. “What you see on reports now are professional political treasurers who are handling the books and records. No longer is it a friend or big wheel. It’s someone who does it for a living.”

Here's my recommendation. Put two names on the account - the treasurer and preferably either the campaign manager or assistant manager, and have the treasurer write the checks with the exception of the treasurer's fees. I don't like writing campaign business checks from the campaign to my own business. It looks bad, even if its a legitimate transaction. The lure for a bad guy to steal the campaign money is less when someone is checking the monthly bank statements, especially one that would know the companies receiving the money. "What's Shell Game, incorporated?" "Uhhh.." "Who did we work with there?" "Uhhhh." "I'm calling the feds." There doesn't need to be micromanagement, but there should be just enough of an eye on the account to know that no shenanigans are going on.

Lastly:
Election lawyers say it’s easy to prevent such thefts. Candidates can require two signatures on accounts, have different people responsible for depositing donations and writing checks, bring in a third person to review the books regularly, and keep an eye on campaign funds the way they would their personal bank accounts.

Beyond the lost cash, candidates and political committees can also face financial penalties from the FEC for filing what turn out to be false disclosure reports.

I'd add carbon copies of the checks as well. This is a Double whammy. Sometimes the FEC or Sec of State may give a break to a campaign for this type of stuff, but it's still just a terrible thing to go through. I don't wish it on any campaign, and I hope those that do this stuff spend a long time in Club Fed.

There's some more details about things at Bloomberg news site. It's a must read for anyone tied into the nuts and bolts of campaigning.

With the campaign season heating up, It's time for all those forming committees to think hard about how they are going to handle the treasury position. Committees need to make sure that whoever they have is someone who is both trustworthy and competent. I still do this work, and if you are interested in a good treasurer, my contact information is at my Company Website.

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