Tim Murphy fallout

What happens to the $1.4 million that Rep. Tim Murphy won’t be using for his campaign

“I think candidates are unlikely to want his money now just because of the scandal,” a Pitt professor said.

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Rep. Tim Murphy is sitting on a small fortune in 2018 campaign funds. He’s also no longer running for office following an affair-and-abortion scandal that prompted the eight-term congressman to ditch his reelection bid and announce his resignation effective Oct. 21 — more than a year before the end of his term.

So what happens to all that money — some $1.4 million in all — without Murphy in the picture and with both parties anxiously eyeing the vacancy he’ll leave behind?

Well, as you might expect, the answer is less-than-straightforward (politics, amirite?) and dependent on which monies we’re talking about.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll limit our focus to two sources: Funding belonging to Murphy’s “campaign committee” and funding belonging to his “Leadership PAC.” His campaign committee had $1.4 million in cash on hand for 2018, while his leadership PAC held $13,000, according to OpenSecrets.org.

While the Federal Election Commission forbids personal expenditures of leftover campaign money belonging to a candidate’s campaign committee, there is no such ban on personal use of leadership PAC funds.

Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, is also not required to close his campaign committee. He can keep it open indefinitely, using the funds to pay off campaign debt or office expenses. He can also keep it open in case he wants to run again.

In an email to The Incline, FEC Deputy Press Officer Christian Hilland added, “If a candidate accepts contributions for the general election before the primary is held and loses the primary (or does not otherwise participate in the general election), the candidate’s principal campaign committee must refund, redesignate or reattribute the general election contributions within 60 days of the primary or the date that the candidate publicly withdraws from the primary race.”

Refund, redesignate or reattribute. If that wording seems open ended, that’s because it is.

Indeed there are a plethora of options for the cash-burdened ex-candidate. While Murphy can’t spend the campaign committee’s $1.4 million on himself — or a messaging app with self-destructing texts for that matter — there are plenty of remedies still available.

He can donate it to charity, hurricane relief efforts, political parties or as much as $2,000 per election to other candidates.

He can also donate it to the Republican National Committee or the National Republican Congressional Committee. (The RNC did not immediately respond to an inquiry from The Incline on Monday. Rep. Murphy’s communications director was out of the office.)

He can also sit on it.

“My guess is he’ll hang onto the money for a while and then give it to candidates, not in this election cycle but maybe the next one,” said Kristin Kanthak, an associate professor of political science at Pitt.

“I think candidates are unlikely to want his money now just because of the scandal and because this is the kind of thing that people running against you are going to cut an ad about. He could also wait a little while until the story kind of goes away a bit and then quietly give money to other candidates.”

In the meantime, Hilland of the FEC said former candidates like Murphy may not accept additional campaign contributions after withdrawing from a primary race, “unless his or her committee has net debts outstanding, which occurs when a committee has more debt than cash on hand for a given election.”

So, just to recap:

  • No personal use of campaign committee funds
  • Carte blanche with leadership PAC funds
  • No additional solicitations unless you’re in the red
  • If you like your campaign committee, you get to keep it

But if you, like us, are wondering what’s to stop a candidate from transferring funds from more restrictive campaign committees to the comparatively free-wheeling leadership PACs, the FEC says the following: “A candidate’s campaign committee may contribute up to $5,000 to a leadership PAC annually. It may not transfer all of its funds to a PAC.”

So there, that’s settled. Right?

Wrong, because campaign committees may themselves be converted into PACs. It’s the sort of metaphysical twist that could make even Kafka’s head explode. And while the FEC says the prohibition on personal use remains in effect under this scenario — and while Kanthak said the campaign committee’s balance can’t just be airdropped into a new coffer — critics say the waters become murkier and the wiggle room even more wiggly.

“Murphy could form a new leadership PAC with the campaign money right now and that would mean he would face the less-strict rules associated with leadership PACs, which is a benefit to him,” Kanthak said.

Meanwhile, those “less-strict rules” are arguably non-existent.

Using the example of a hypothetical and nationally prominent U.S. senator, Kanthak explained that everything from the senator’s travel expenses to the wining and dining of donors could be covered by a leadership PAC.

The senator could also avail his or herself of the regulatory blind spots that litter the campaign finance and leadership PAC landscapes, blending business and pleasure into a greying ethical stew inscrutable to overseers and often impossible to separate.

“What’s stopping them from going to Hawaii and putting it all on the leadership PAC? Nothing, really,” Kanthak explained. “The FEC won’t be able to check that. [A politician] could say ‘I’m going for party building purposes’ and [the FEC] can’t prove that wasn’t the case. With personal campaign funds you have to show you’re actually campaigning.” (Although those are misused, too.)

It should be noted that the FEC has pushed for tighter restrictions on leadership PACs in the past. It should also be noted that the lawmakers in Congress have been surprisingly slow to take up the cause.

As for the disparity between the amounts in Murphy’s campaign committee fund and leadership PAC fund, Kanthak offered the following explanation:

“Members of Congress want to keep a lot of money in campaign coffers because it scares off potential challengers.”

That won’t matter for Murphy now. But because of how our campaign finance system works, the numbers in his accounts could — and almost certainly will — matter for someone else.

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