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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / CAMPAIGN 2012

Zombie Super PACs: What Happens to the Money After a Candidate Drops Out?

February 2, 2012

Super PACs draw a lot of attention when they're smearing opponents with vicious advertisements, but what happens when the dream dies and the committee's candidate drops out? Viewers of The Colbert Report will recall the satirical power struggle for control of Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow after Stephen Colbert's suspension of his exploratory committee. Since the PAC actually raised north of $1 million, Colbert and Jon Stewart fought for control of the loot. Could the same theoretical power struggle happen with the real-life GOP candidates dropping out? We asked some election lawyers to find out.

Atlantic Wire

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So far, the army of zombie super PACs include the pro-Rick Perry Make Us Great Again PAC, the pro-Jon Hunstman Our Destiny PAC and, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, the pro-Rick Santorum Red White and Blue Fund PAC. According to the latest Federal Election Commission filing, the pro-Perry super PAC still has $604,472 cash on hand, while the pro-Huntsman PAC has $126,000 cash on hand. But don't look for a fight over the cash: Neither Perry nor Huntsman has any claim to it.

 

"Candidates don't have any legal right to possess that money at all," said Jan Witold Baran, a partner at Washington-based law firm Wiley Rein. The leftover money goes to the individual in charge of the super PAC, typically the treasurer, who is identified in the committee's FEC filing.

As Baran notes, the head of the PAC can do any number of things with the leftover cash. "The purpose of the PAC may change, but they can continue operating as long as they have money," he said. "They may support the GOP nominee in the general election." Karl Rove's super PAC American Crossroads, for instance, supports a range of political candidates and issues.

But contributing to other campaigns isn't the only thing a super PAC is free to do. Unlike campaign money for presidential, senatorial or congressional campaigns, super PACs are allowed to use the leftover funds for personal expenditures, said Michael Toner, another partner at Wiley Rein. "The FEC has a prohibition on personal expenditures for campaign funds but it does not extend to super PACs," he said. "I could accept a yacht from a super PAC, for instance." He noted that the expenditures would still be taxable. And if yachts aren't your thing, super PACs can also donate the remaining money to charity.

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