14 presidential candidates who still owe campaign debt

White House hopefuls (and occupants) are awash in red ink

Published May 2, 2013 1:00PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on publicintegrity.org.

The Center for Public Integrity

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich dubbed the national debt a "burden for our children for life."

Ex-Rep. Dennis Kucinich vilified Republicans for adding, by his calculations, $4 trillion to it.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, meanwhile, predicted debt will precipitate a future of "indentured servitude to foreign lenders."

What unites these and other presidential candidates is that they themselves are in debt. Campaign debt.

It's a dubious distinction shared by Democrats and Republicans, eccentric nonagenarians and White House occupants.

Such debt isn't really hurting anyone but creditors — certainly not the nation nor its creditworthiness.

But it is a reminder that despite candidates' soaring rhetoric about fiscal responsibility, they often fail to follow their own prescription for sound budgetary management amid the relentless rush to remain competitive with political rivals during election seasons that are longer and more expensive than ever.

Until the debts are paid, the federal government requires former candidates in most cases to keep their campaign committees open and, technically, active, meaning some of the indebtedness stretches back decades.

Following are the nation’s top presidential campaign deadbeats who still find themselves at least $100,000 in the red, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission:

1.) Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.

Election year: 2012

Debt: $4,595,394

The back story: For a moment in December 2011, Gingrich appeared to have requisite momentum in his bid to capture the Republican presidential nomination. And then, the moment passed. That didn't stop the former House speaker from continuing to spend lavishly on his flagging campaign, which finally petered out in April 2012 when it became clear rival Mitt Romney would capture the GOP banner. Among the dozens of debts totaling nearly $4.6 million the Newt 2012 presidential committee still owes as of March 31: more than $983,000 to Moby Dick Airways for chartered air travel and more than $413,000 to the Patriot Group for private security services. Gingrich's campaign also owes Gingrich himself about $647,500. Other vendors waiting for Gingrich to pay them back include Twitter (nearly $13,000 for a media buy), Herman Cain Solutions (more than $16,500 for "strategic consulting/travel”) and Verizon Wireless ($862 for cell phone service). The committee also disputes about $130,000 worth of bills from vendors. Gingrich has of late attempted to raise money to pay down his debt by renting the personal information of his supporters to data companies. But the income has barely made a dent in his obligations, which at one point reached nearly $5 million. Gingrich has also created the Committee for America, a federal joint fundraising committee that states it’s raising money for the dual purpose of retiring his presidential committee’s debt and funding a separate political action committee he runs — the American Legacy PAC, which most recently reported about $60,000 in available cash after having spent most of its money late last year on telemarketing expenses. Gingrich officials did not return requests for comment, although a former spokesperson R.C. Hammond last year explained: "Our preference is obviously not to have gone into debt. If we could eliminate the debt overnight, we would. But realistically, this will take years."

2.) Lyndon LaRouche, Democrat

Election years: 1984, 2000, 2004

Debt: $3,230,438

The back story: An eight-time presidential candidate who attracts a passionate, if fringe following, the 90-year-old LaRouche never paid many of his 1984 campaign's phone, rent, legal and data bills, which are now almost 30 years old, according to federal filings. The campaign committee also hasn't settled dozens of small, unsecured loans made by individuals to the campaign. In all, the 1984 campaign alone owes $1.22 million. It's probably no wonder: LaRouche served more than five years in federal prison after a federal jury convicted him of fraud and conspiracy. He exited prison in 1994 and again ran for president in 1996, 2000 and 2004, with his final campaign committee owing about $1.06 million. Two other LaRouche presidential committees report smaller debts. Representatives for LaRouche, who today leads the LaRouche PAC political action committee, could not be reached for comment. Democratic Party officials say they have no comment on LaRouche’s debt, as they maintain no association with LaRouche or his past campaigns.

3.) President Barack Obama, Democrat

Election year: 2012

Debt: $3,101,117

The back story: Obama may have won re-election in November, but for a campaign that raised more money than any in U.S. history, there are still some books to balance. As of March 31, it still owed more than $3.1 million to a variety of vendors, including telephone companies, media consultants, insurance firms, computer businesses and attorneys, among others. The two largest single debts the Obama campaign has yet to clear are with Maryland-based Hargrove, Inc., which is owed nearly $627,000 for "staging, sound, lighting" services, and Washington, D.C.-based New Partners Consulting, Inc., which is owed $501,000 for telemarketing services. The debt won't likely linger, however, as Obama's political machine is unmatched in its ability to quickly generate cash. It also has plenty of assets to sell and rent. During early 2013, for example, it earned $350,000 just from renting its supporters' personal information to the committee coordinating the presidential inauguration. And tens of thousands of dollars in personal contributions continue to flow in. The committee also reports almost $591,000 cash on hand. “The campaign will take care of all outstanding vendor debt as it continues to wind down,” Democratic National Committee Communications Director Brad Woodhouse promised. Vanquished Republican rival Mitt Romney turned out to be a fiscal conservative after all. His own campaign committee is debt free.

4.) Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Republican

Election year: 2008

Debt: $1,756,988

The back story: Giuliani ultimately couldn't translate his popularity as "America's mayor" into a presidential candidacy most Americans supported, and he made a surprisingly early exit from the 2008 GOP primary while finding himself more than $2.7 million in the red. More than five years later, the campaign committee still owes money to about two-dozen vendors — including two Giuliani-related companies — while also owing its namesake candidate a quarter-million bucks. Verizon Wireless (about $236,000) and AT&T Inc. (nearly $107,000) also crack six figures. But this will soon change, Giuliani says. "We're at the point now where we have agreements with almost every vendor on settlement amounts — maybe one or two to go," Giuliani said by phone. The next step, he said, will be to submit a settlement plan to the Federal Election Commission for approval so that he may terminate his presidential committee. The plan will be submitted "optimistically, by the end of the month, and worst-case scenario, by the middle of next month," Giuliani said. He noted that he's fronted about $1.2 million of his own money to pay off debts to smaller vendors so to "take care of anyone in a difficult situation first." Ultimately, Giuliani said, "we'd like to get this done by the end of the year ... we've been working on this for two years to get this done and get it right."

5.) The Rev. Al Sharpton, Democrat

Election year: 2004

Debt: $925,713

The back story: Who doesn't the bombastic preacher and civil rights activist-turned-MSNBC program host owe? That might be the better question to ask of Sharpton, whose quixotic 2004 presidential campaign remains deep in debt as of Dec. 31 to entities ranging from the U.S. government (for campaign violation penalties) to a laundry list of former staffers (for back wages and repayments). Sharpton is himself also owed money from unsecured loans he made to his campaign. Sharpton's campaign debt has actually grown in recent years thanks largely to fines federal regulators slapped on the campaign. “He does intend to do a series of fundraisers around his birthday in October,” spokeswoman Rachel Noerdlinger said. “He’s also been talking with the Federal Election Commission about reaching a settlement” on the fines. At the end of 2004, weeks after George W. Bush secured a second term, Sharpton's campaign found itself in better shape than it does today, owing creditors about $567,000.

6.) Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

Election year: 2012

Debt: $619,629

The back story: Like Gingrich, Santorum continued to deficit spend in hopes of keeping his dwindling presidential aspirations alive into the spring of 2012. He hung in until April before finally bailing out — owing a variety of creditors nearly $2.3 million. Santorum has steadily improved his financial lot in the year since, although he still owes 11 vendors back payments, including more than $430,000 to Pennsylvania-based consulting firm Brabender Cox for media placement and consulting services. The campaign committee also still owes $12,500 to Front Row Motor Sports as part of its sponsorship of driver Tony Raines' NASCAR car. Santorum, a vocal advocate of a federal balanced budget amendment, initiated attempts to retire his debt almost immediately after quitting the race, writing to supporters that he “cannot be free to focus on helping defeat [Obama] with this burden. I am asking you to consider one more contribution.” The former senator is now leading (and raising money for) a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group called Patriot Voices, which describes itself as dedicated to protecting “faith, freedom, family and opportunity.” Santorum aides did not reply to requests for comment.

7.) Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio

Election year: 2004, 2008

Debt: $546,413

The back story: When Kucinich received permission in February to terminate his 2008 presidential campaign committee, he still reported owing money to nine different creditors, including $45,000 for legal services to McTigue & McGinnis LLC of Columbus, Ohio. The Federal Election Commission noted that Kucinich's committee, while is no longer required to file regular reports, "does not relieve the committee of any legal responsibility for the payment of any outstanding debt or obligation." That’s not, however, Kucinich’s biggest problem: The former congressman still owes $493,910 from his 2004 presidential bid. Donald J. McTigue, Kucinich’s lawyer and campaign treasurer, is due most of it. “The committee recognizes it has a debt, and if and when it becomes possible to work on the debt, it will,” McTigue said. Does he ever expect to see his money? “I’m always hopeful,” McTigue said. “Who knows what the future holds?”

8.) Herman Cain, Republican

Election year: 2012

Debt: $450,000

The back story: Forget 9-9-9. The former pizza executive, who soared to the top of the 2012 Republican presidential ranks only to fall away just as quickly, has a much larger number to recoup — one just south of half-million dollars. But in contrast with most other presidential committees, the Friends of Herman Cain presidential committee owes what it owes to its own candidate: It's failed to reimburse Cain for $175,000 in travel expenses and hasn't paid back $275,000 in cash Cain loaned the committee. Scott F. Bieniek, who served as the committee’s general counsel, said he’s no longer affiliated with the committee and directed questions to Treasurer Mark Block, who couldn’t be reached for comment. Added Bieniek: “I certainly think very highly of Mr. Cain and hope that the committee is able to raise the funds necessary to repay any personal money that he loaned to the campaign.”

9.) Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.

Election year: 2004

Debt: $331,586

The back story: You might expect an Edwards’ debt stems from the former senator's 2008 presidential run, during which federal prosecutors alleged he used campaign cash to hush up a staffer-turned-mistress who secretly gave birth to his love child. The tawdry tale ostensibly ended Edwards' political career, but he nonetheless beat the rap and avoided jail time. Edwards' 2004 presidential run, meanwhile, is the culprit for his continued financial indebtedness. Credit a lion's share of the more than $331,000 his 2004 campaign committee owes — about $226,000 — to unpaid legal and consulting fees billed by Washington, D.C.-based law firm Ryan Phillips Utrecht & McKinnon. Edwards' campaign debt has effectively remained the same since late 2006. “We’re working on that,” campaign treasurer Lora Haggard said of the debt, “but I don’t have any more information at this time.” During the 2004 campaign, Edwards once promised he’d “get us seriously back on the road to fiscal responsibility” if elected president. Edwards' 2008 presidential campaign committee? It finally shut down this month and doesn't owe anyone a cent after itself owing more than $2 million at one point.

10.) Former Ambassador Alan Keyes, Republican

Election year: 2000

Debt: $301,144

The back story: Keyes collected about 5 percent of all votes during the 2000 Republican presidential primary and never seriously challenged neither eventual winner George W. Bush nor Sen. John McCain. His legacy? More than $300,000 in debt owed to a dozen campaign vendors, with about half owed to Virginia- and California-based consulting firm Politechs. Keyes appears to be in little hurry to pay off any of it: A full decade ago, his committee's debt stood at about $337,000. Keyes also sought the presidency in 2008. His campaign committee from that cycle has no debt and actually maintains a small surplus. Keyes aide Carla Michele said campaign officials are “doing everything they can” to retire the debt, although she didn’t have additional details.

11.) Former Rep. Bob Barr, Libertarian

Election year: 2008

Debt: $158,450

The back story: As a minor-party candidate, Barr, who once served in Congress as a Republican from Georgia, had about a libertine's chance in North Korea of leading the nation. Nevertheless, Barr ran and lost, and in doing so, left a mess of unpaid obligations in his wake. Among them: $47,000 to Maryland-based author James Bovard, who ghost-wrote a book for Barr and didn't get paid. (As a presidential candidate, Barr once called for a "surge in federal fiscal responsibility.") Debt or no debt, Barr is eyeing a return to the U.S. House, having announced last month he'll seek a congressional seat in Georgia — as a Republican. Will Barr move to quickly pay his old debts off? “The team associated with the 2008 campaign has worked to retire the debt from $214,221 to about $150,000,” Barr campaign manager Jeff Breedlove said. “They continue to do so in a professional and dedicated manner.”

12.) Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.

Election year: 2012

Debt: $127,996

The back story: Days after Bachmann quit the presidential race after the January 2012 Iowa caucuses, her campaign reported being more than $1 million in debt with less than $166,000 in available cash. In the 15 months since, Bachmann has been able to whittle her debt down to less than $128,000, as of March 31. “That said, we are in communication with our venders and are working to pay the residual remaining balance off in the near future," Bachmann for President finance chairman James L. Pollack said. Nahigian Strategies in Alexandria, Va., is owed more than half that amount for campaign management services. And Bachmann owes more than $6,200 to law and lobbying firm Patton Boggs for legal services. Smaller, stranger debts include $688 to a golf cart supplier in Omaha, Neb., and $47 to a general store in West Des Moines, Iowa. Bachmann's campaign committee has found itself particularly crosswise with the golf cart rental set, as one Iowa-based supplier sued Bachmann — and won — after her campaign allegedly damaged several contracted vehicles, then failed to pay the bill. Bachmann ultimately paid up.

13.) Gary Bauer, Republican

Election year: 2000

Debt: $108,557

The back story: While few folks even remember Bauer's long-shot presidential candidacy, the Internal Revenue Service certainly does. That's because Bauer's campaign committee still owes the tax man more than $10,000, according to its latest federal disclosure filing. The campaign committee for Bauer, who today leads the conservative Campaign for Working Families organization, also has yet to pay its bills from four direct mail and list rental firms. “The plan is to pay it off little by little over time,” Bauer aide Kristi Hamrick said. “As soon as possible is the time frame.” At a rally last year against now-Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., Bauer railed against the national debt. “America is drowning in red ink,” he said. “Obama and his Democrat allies in Congress have added trillions of dollars to the national debt and raised taxes by hundreds of billions through Obamacare,"

14.) President Bill Clinton, Democrat

Election year: 1996

Debt: $100,080

The backstory: One might reasonably assume that after 17 years, the former leader of the free world, who presided over Israelis and Palestinians signing the Oslo Peace Accords, could settle a disagreement with campaign creditors. Apparently not. The Clinton/Gore '96 Primary Committee, which technically remains open and active, still owes more than $100,000 to three firms for consulting and polling fees. Clinton's committee disputes the charges, and the debts from a year when the Macarena topped the music charts, remain unresolved. Clinton aides did not return requests for comment. Hillary Clinton? She cleared her once massive 2008 presidential debts earlier this year.

By Dave Levinthal

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