President Obama continued collecting money for his 2010 Senate re-election campaign even after he resigned his seat from Illinois, including a maximum $2,300 donation the day after Christmas from a top executive of a Wall Street firm that had received a government bailout.
Four contributions - $4,800 in all - were donated to the Obama 2010 fund on Dec. 26, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
The money came from some of Mr. Obama’s top presidential fundraisers: Bruce A. Heyman, managing director at Goldman Sachs, which received a $10 billion bailout last year; Steven Koch, vice chairman at Credit Suisse First Boston; and John Levi, a lawyer at the law and lobbying firm of Sidley Austin LLP.
The donations are legal, but the timing is unusual because Mr. Obama formally left the Senate on Nov. 16 and already had a surplus in his Senate campaign treasury.
Under federal election law, Mr. Obama and five other former members of Congress now serving in his Cabinet or the White House can retain congressional campaign funds for years, even if they don’t plan to run for Congress again. They can spend the money for any political purpose.
Mr. Obama’s transportation secretary, former Rep. Ray LaHood, Illinois Republican, has given $60,000 of his leftover funds to help reduce the campaign debt of his son’s failed run for state office. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat who represented Illinois in the House, is one of three administration figures with at least $1 million left over in their congressional campaign funds, FEC records show.
“Other than converting the money to personal use, which is the one thing they can’t do, these campaigns can basically operate as political slush funds,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
“As much as people talk about change in Washington, and we’re seeing plenty of it, money still talks. And one of the ways you remain a political player is to make sure you still have money in your political account,” she said.
A former Obama campaign aide said the late-December donations collected for Mr. Obama’s Senate campaign were solicited “by a fundraiser who worked for the campaign to cover outstanding expenses that needed to be paid to wind down the campaign committee.”
At the time, Mr. Obama’s Senate campaign reported more than $100,000 in cash on hand, and his separately run presidential campaign fund was flush with $15.4 million in the bank.
Among the Christmastime contributions, $1,000 came from Mr. Koch, the vice chairman at Credit Suisse, who, like Mr. Heyman, raised at least $200,000 for Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign, according to data compiled by the watchdog group Public Citizen.
Phone calls to Mr. Heyman and Mr. Koch placed through their offices were not returned, and a Goldman Sachs spokeswoman declined to comment. John Levi, who gave $500, is a lawyer at the Chicago law firm of Sidley Austin, where Mr. Obama met his wife, Michelle, in 1989 while he was working as a summer associate and she was an associate at the firm.
Mr. Levi said he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter and declined to comment.
The Obama appointees are hardly the first former members of Congress whose fundraising committees remained open after they took executive branch jobs. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s old Senate campaign fund remained active for years after he joined President George W. Bush’s Cabinet, as did the campaign fund for former Sen. Spencer Abraham, Michigan Republican, who was Mr. Bush’s first secretary of energy.
Such dormant congressional campaigns still can raise and spend money in a variety of ways. They can keep old donations in the bank, pay down debts or give the money to other politicians. They also can donate it to charity or return contributions to donors.
Mr. LaHood recently terminated his campaign fund, but not before tapping into his leftover money to help his son’s political career.
On. Nov. 15, Mr. LaHood’s campaign transferred $60,000 to Friends of Darin LaHood, his son’s campaign fund. Just 11 days earlier, Darin LaHood lost his bid to become state attorney in Peoria, Ill.
This father-to-son campaign transfer would violate campaign finance laws in federal campaigns and in most state elections. But since Illinois has no cap on state-level donations, the transfer was legal, said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, which advocates contribution limits.
“While everything is legal, when people donate to their sons or daughters, we’ve always found that to be a really questionable practice,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the nonpartisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Donors to Ray LaHood probably didn’t think the money was going to go to his son.”
After Mr. LaHood was named transportation secretary, his committee filed papers terminating his House campaign with the Federal Election Commission. Through a spokeswoman, Mr. LaHood declined to comment about the transfer.
Three top Obama appointees have campaign accounts with more than $1 million each:
•Mr. Emanuel has two open accounts. His principal campaign committee, Friends of Rahm Emanuel, had more than $1.7 million in the bank at the end of last year.
Mr. Emanuel’s leadership committee, Our Common Values, raised more than $1 million in donations in 2007 and 2008, with the money going almost entirely to Democrats. The committee now has less than $15,000 in the bank, according to records.
• Former Sen. Ken Salazar, Colorado Democrat, reported $2 million in his campaign bank before he became Mr. Obama’s secretary of the interior.
• Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign fund for her Senate seat from New York has more than $5.3 million in the bank, but her presidential campaign committee remained nearly $6 million in debt at the end of 2008. The biggest debt is owed to Penn, Schoen & Berlan Associates, headed by Mrs. Clinton’s former campaign strategist, Mark Penn.
Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, a Democrat who left her House seat from California for a Cabinet post in the Obama administration, reported more than a quarter-million dollars left in her campaign fund at the end of the year.
Former members of Congress are under no deadlines to decide what to do with the money.
“There’s no restrictions in terms of how long excess campaign funds can remain in a campaign account,” said campaign finance lawyer Michael Toner, a former Federal Election Commission chairman who was appointed by Mr. Bush in 2002.