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Bush, Kerry Have Leftover Cash

Two months removed from the most expensive presidential campaign in history, President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) still have nearly $23 million left over in little-used federal compliance accounts, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

These accounts — known as General Election Legal and Accounting Compliance funds — are repositories for monies raised by presidential candidates after the date they begin accepting public financing for the general election campaign. They are a potential boon for political entities allied with each candidate, but only after a lengthy process of auditing and reconciling the campaign’s books is completed.

Bush had $15.6 million in his GELAC account as of Nov. 22. Kerry had $7.2 million in his equivalent committee.

These dollars are separate from the cash remaining in Bush’s and Kerry’s primary election accounts. As of Nov. 22, Kerry showed $14.2 million in his primary fund; Bush had just over $2 million.

Under FEC law, money left in a GELAC account can be used for one of four purposes. It can be used to help defray costs related to the presidential campaign; donated in unlimited amounts to local, state or national party committees; transferred to another personal campaign committee for the candidate that raised it; or given to a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

As the 2004 election wound to a close, Bush and Kerry transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars from their primary accounts to GELAC committees in the expectation that legal proceedings could follow the general election.

The exact amount of GELAC money that Bush and Kerry will have at their disposal is not likely to be known for more than a year, since both campaigns must undergo an audit from the Internal Revenue Service and then wade through any related complaints with the FEC.

“Presumably it will be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to get [a presidential campaign] to get itself wound down and through the audit,” said Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer at the firm Perkins Coie. “FEC regulations don’t allow for GELAC money to be used for any of the lawful purposes until the audit and all the ancillary legal actions are completed.”

A look back at the 2000 campaign shows that the auditing process can be a long one.

Back then, Democratic nominee Al Gore’s GELAC committee showed $9.2 million in the bank as of Nov. 27, 2000.

Beginning in 2001, Gore transferred more than $2 million to his presidential campaign for “wind down expenses.” He did not make contributions to anyone other than himself until the summer of 2003, when he wrote a $450,000 check to the Tennessee Democratic party.

After repeated pleas from his party, Gore dipped into the $6.6 million remaining in his bank account in April 2004.

He gave $4 million to the Democratic National Committee, and $1 million each to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He cut another $250,000 check to the Tennessee Democratic Party; $40,000 went to the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign.

Officials say that neither Bush nor Kerry has made any plans about disposing of the funds in his GELAC war chest.

“We’re closing down a $75 million general election campaign, with a full-time compliance staff completing a complicated accounting process,” Kerry Senate spokesman David Wade said. “If past presidential campaigns are any indication, this is a long row to hoe and it’s wildly premature for anyone to make long-term plans for GELAC funds until this process is finished.”

That sentiment was echoed by Republican National Committee Communications Director Brian Jones.

“The money is going to go to wind down the campaign,” explained Jones. He pointed out that the “books weren’t closed” on the 2000 Bush campaign until early 2004.

“The campaign still doesn’t know what to expect” in terms of the final costs of the audit, the recount in Ohio and myriad other legal fees, added Jones.

Bush, who has pledged to use his final four years in the White House to build a lasting Republican majority, may be able to provide significant seed money for each of the three GOP committees as they head into the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Kerry’s eventual choice for disbursing his excess dollars is a more complicated one.

As a sitting Senator, Kerry could transfer his GELAC stash directly into his Senate campaign committee or, if he decides to make another run for president in 2008, to a presidential fund. Kerry could not put the GELAC money into his yet-to-be named leadership political action committee, according to Elias.

However, he is likely to come under considerable pressure to help House Democrats out of a financial hole dug during the 2004 cycle.

The DCCC had accumulated a debt of more than $10 million as of Nov. 22, though the committee did have more than $4 million on hand at that time. The DCCC debt is the largest ever accrued by a party committee.

The DSCC earlier this month erased its $3.6 million debt from last cycle, thanks to $1 million donations from the Kerry campaign’s primary account and from the Democratic National Committee. The DNC entered the 2006 cycle with no arrears.

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