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Tanner Fundraiser Raises Eyebrows on K Street

After Congress, you apparently can take it with you.

On June 22, Rep. John Tanner will host a fundraiser at a Beltway-area golf course, an event similar to many others held every day in the chase for campaign cash.

But unlike most lawmakers who are passing the hat this summer ahead of November’s midterm elections, the Tennessee Democrat’s outing may have a more dubious rationale; the Blue Dog Coalition co-founder announced his retirement six months ago.

Tanner’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the fundraiser, but the tee-off later this month appears to be a rare example of a lame-duck lawmaker hitting up lobbyists for campaign cash while he still can. Tanner’s pitch, according to downtown sources, is also seen as an attempt to seed his leadership political action committee — a political account that has very few spending restrictions — to further his expected K Street career once he leaves Capitol Hill in January.

According to an invitation to the event, Tanner’s golf outing will be held at Lake Presidential Golf Club, a course in Upper Marlboro, Md., that bills itself on its website as “one of the most renowned public access courses of the Mid-Atlantic golf community.” For his fundraiser, dubbed “John Tanner’s Send-off Championship 2010,” foursomes pay $5,000 and twosomes are $3,500, while individuals must plunk down $2,500 for the round.

Campaign finance records show that Tanner’s eleventh-hour golf tournament comes when he apparently needs the cash. According to CQ MoneyLine, his Leadership 21 PAC had less than $35,000 on hand April 30, the most recent filing deadline. So far this cycle, Tanner’s leadership PAC has raised $116,000 and spent $150,000, including $111,000 in contributions to political committees and $39,000 on greens fees and payments to consultants, campaign finance records show.

Tanner has not stated publicly what his post-Congressional plans will entail. Still, the moderate Volunteer State Democrat, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, is considered one of this cycle’s top downtown prospects among retiring Members. Once there — or as he ponders his options for the next six months — his leadership PAC may serve him well, said Nancy Watzman of the open-government Sunlight Foundation.

“He could be playing golf with people he wants to work with, who knows?” said Watzman, who is the director of her organization’s Party Time Project, which publishes details of Member fundraising. “It’s interesting to see what his future plans are because he can use that money to support other candidates.”

A Republican lobbyist speculated that Tanner’s options with his expected June haul are twofold.

“He could use it on himself,” the source said. “Or, if he becomes a lobbyist, now he’s got a lot of money to give out [to Members], and it increases his power as a lobbyist.”

Sources interviewed for this article called Tanner’s fundraiser extremely unusual, especially because he announced his retirement last winter and has no campaign debt.

According to Sunlight Foundation records, only a handful of retiring Members this cycle have announced fundraisers once they’ve either bowed out or been ousted by voters. Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), who announced his retirement in January 2009, held an event for his leadership PAC four months later, Sunlight Foundation records show. As of April 1, Bond’s Kit PAC had raised $339,000 and spent $293,000 this cycle, including roughly $40,000 on lodging and catering expenses in Key West, Fla., according to MoneyLine.

All cycle, Bond’s leadership PAC has given only $50,000 to candidates, campaign finance records also show. His office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Sen. Bob Bennett, who was not renominated last month during the Utah GOP convention, is hosting a “Flies and Drives” golf and fly-fishing fundraiser Aug. 13-14 in Park City, Utah, according to Sunlight’s website. His office also did not respond to a request for comment.

For leadership PACs, there are very few restrictions regarding what the money may be spent on before and after Members leave public office. Unlike principal re-election accounts, which have prohibitions on the “personal use” of campaign money, leadership PAC cash can be used for any legal purpose, former Federal Election Commission lawyer Larry Norton said.

Norton is now a campaign finance lawyer at the law firm Womble Carlyle. He also said the FEC has lobbied lawmakers to change leadership PAC rules, so they meet the more stringent guidelines for candidate campaign committees — recommendations that have not gotten any traction.

In 2009, all six current FEC members recommended that lawmakers standardize “personal use” restrictions for all political committees.

The Federal Election Campaign Act “makes it illegal for an individual to use contributions accepted by a candidate or a candidate’s committee for his or her own personal use, i.e. to fulfill any commitment, obligation, or expense that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s election campaign or duties as a holder of Federal office,” the commission wrote to Members in March 2009. “However, no corresponding provision covers individuals who convert contributions received by party committees, separate segregated funds, leadership PACs and other political committees, to their own personal use.”

Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, a top bundler for his party, said he sees no harm with Tanner’s continued fundraising attempts, but only if he turns around and immediately gives it to Democratic candidates and Members who need the money this cycle.

“I don’t have a problem with it as long as it’s going to the party — leadership PACs are a legitimate way to increase the amount of money going into some of these races,” Elmendorf said. “As a donor, I’d want to know that they’re using it this year to help in races. … I’m not interested in funding former Members’ political efforts once they leave the Congress.”

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