Politics

Democrats: Campaign Finance Admission Should ‘Disqualify’ Incoming Congressman

Rep.-elect Ross Spano’s Republican primary opponents are outraged, too

Florida Republican Rep.-elect Ross Spano  and his wife Amie are seen after the drawing for House offices last month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Revelations that GOP Rep.-elect Ross Spano violated campaign finance law by taking out personal loans and directing approximately the same amount to his campaign should disqualify him from serving in Congress, Florida Democrats say.

Spano “knew exactly what he was doing when he took personal loans and used them as campaign funds, which is against the law,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo said in a statement earlier this week. “This matter needs to be fully investigated, and appropriate actions taken.”

The freshman Republican acknowledged transgressing rules against straw donations in a letter from his attorney to the Federal Election Commission dated last week.

Spano borrowed $180,000 in four installments from June to October at an interest rate of 5 percent. The candidate lent his campaign committee $167,000 in personal funds over roughly the same period. 

Spano accepted $75,000 from a lender on Oct. 29, eight days before the election, and directed $70,000 to his campaign on the same day.

The loans far exceed the $2,700 limit on contributions from individuals to federal candidates. Spano expects to fully repay them by the end of this week, according to the letter to regulators.

The loans only came to light on the eve of Election Day through a financial disclosure form Spano submitted 3½ months after it was due, facing questions from the Tampa Bay Times about the missing filing.

That delay casts doubt on the assertion made in the letter that Spano “believed he was acting in full compliance of the law,” critics say.

Whether Spano knowingly broke the law is a critical question, because while the FEC can impose lighter penalties through an expedited “sua sponte” procedure when candidates proactively report violations, commission regulators may consider whether the violation was a mistake or “knowing and willful.”

Spano "took the proactive step to voluntarily disclose this information in an effort to rectify the situation as quickly as possible," spokeswoman Sandi Poreda stressed in an email Monday.

Despite the doubts surrounding the claim that Spano believed he was acting lawfully, he will likely be successful in seeking resolution through the FEC's expedited process. 

“I’m not aware of a ‘sua sponte’ complaint that has been rejected,” an FEC spokesman said.

The new information about Spano's loans, and the possibility that the member-elect will be sworn into office with no punishment more severe than a fine, outraged his former campaign opponents.

“Had I known that the remedy may be to say I got bad advice and ask for forgiveness, I bet I could have found some sugar daddy that needed a friend in Congress to ‘loan’ me a wad,” former Republican primary opponent Neil Combee told Florida Politics.

His former opponents question how Spano, once a candidate for state attorney general, could have been unaware of the law. 

“He blames it on misguided advice from his treasurer, but his name is on the checks ... once he gets a ‘hall pass’ from this transgression, who will Spano be beholden to?” said Danny Kushmer, another Republican primary opponent who went on to endorse Spano in the general election.

“Unfortunately, I did not know to what extent he was willing to go to win.” 

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