U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez announced eight months ago that he would not seek reelection but has continued to spend campaign donations on consultants, staff, air fares, meals, cellphones and purchases at the Senate gift shop.
Federal Election Commission records show Martinez has spent $147,642 since his Dec. 2 announcement. He also returned $419,051 to his contributors, with $456,200 remaining in the account as of June 30.
Federal law gives officeholders wide latitude to spend campaign donations on anything related to their election or in connection with their official duties.
“My general advice is, `contributors beware,’ ” said Paul Ryan, an election law expert at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based watchdog group. “The door is close to wide open for what federal officeholders can do with the money in their coffers.”
Martinez’s campaign treasurer, Tampa accountant Nancy Watkins, said the senator has adhered to federal law.
“It has to be for the campaign or official business,” said Watkins, whose firm has received thousands of dollars from Martinez’s campaign for accounting services in recent months. “There’s no conversion for personal use, and we don’t have any of that going on here.”
Martinez’s decision to step down has paved the way for one of Florida’s most hectic and unpredictable election cycles in decades. The senator initially pledged to finish his term but last week said he was quitting.
Thousands of campaign dollars in recent months went to pay caterers and restaurants, including $2,549 at the Pour House, a Washington sports bar; $591.85 for catering at the officers’ club at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa; $247.14 at the Oceanaire seafood restaurant in Washington, and $197.72 at Le Coq Au Vin in Orlando.
Watkins said Martinez held a holiday party for his congressional staff at the Pour House. She said she did not know the circumstances of the other restaurant and catering bills but suggested they could be for meetings with visiting constituents, fellow senators or campaign staff.
“Yours and my tax dollars don’t pay for those things,” Watkins said.
The campaign spent $425 at the Senate gift shop on Dec. 8 and another $215.75 on Jan. 12. Watkins said the purchases were likely flag pins, key chains or other souvenirs that bear the seal of the Senate and are given to constituents, friends and donors.
The report also shows money taken out of the account for “petty cash” — $300 on Dec. 30 and $233.49 on March 16. Watkins said the money was for inexpensive items, like a roll of stamps or office supplies. Martinez also continues to pay a campaign employee’s salary and overhead to wind down his election account, which Watkins compared to “a battle ship, it takes six months to turn around.”
Some of the expenses were left over from political activities and contracts begun before Martinez announced that he would not run again. Political consultant Tre’ Evers of Consensus Communications in Orlando said a Jan. 2 payment of $16,450 was the last of four installments for campaign fundraising in 2008.
“Sen. Martinez was raising money because it takes a lot of money to run a Senate race, and he was planning to make a final decision on whether he would do it later on,” Evers said. “It’s what everybody does.”
Other vendors that received hundreds of dollars from the campaign include American Express for credit card bills, AT&T Mobility for cell phone services, Chicago-based Restaurant Associates for food and beverages, Aristotle International in Washington for software, Advanced Network Solutions of Orlando for Internet access and technical support, and CVC Productions of Windermere for audio-visual services.
Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard, who was among the dozens of donors who received campaign refunds in late December, said he wasn’t concerned about how Martinez spent the money left in his account.
“I have all the faith in the world in him,” said Ballard, who got a $2,300 check back. “I was happy to give the money to him, and when he decided he wasn’t going to run I was happy to get it back.”
The main restriction on federal campaign donations is that they can’t be spent on personal use, such as a home mortgage, school tuition or funeral expenses. Any spending that occurs because of a campaign or public office is “considered permissible,” says the FEC’s campaign guide.
Federal officeholders may also spend campaign contributions on family travel to an event that relates to their public offices. And they can donate money to charities, political parties or candidates. Martinez gave about $50,000 in June to a slew of Republican members of Congress and also to Gov. Charlie Crist, the front-runner to replace him in 2010.
Martinez’s early exit puts Crist in the unusual position of appointing someone to serve the last 17 months of his term at the same time he is seeking the job himself. Potential candidates include former U.S. Attorney Bob Martinez, former Secretary of State Jim Smith and George LeMieux, Crist’s former chief of staff.
Last year, Sen. Martinez paid a $99,000 fine to the Federal Elections Commission for accepting donations that exceeded the legal limits and for other violations in his 2004 campaign. The senator’s campaign said the violations were “inadvertent.”