Refunds of Campaign Donations Up 70 Percent

A series of retirements and controversies have prompted House and Senate lawmakers to return $16 million in campaign donations since the beginning of 2009, up nearly 70 percent from the last elections, according to a USA TODAY review.

The uptick comes as campaigns are under pressure from opponents to return money from Wall Street donors following the 2008 banking collapse and, more recently, to oil companies after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. But the bulk of the increase stemmed from retirements and candidates dropping out of races.

"It was just the right thing to do our in our case -- showed integrity," said Nick Jordan, a Republican who withdrew from a Kansas House race in April and returned $114,500 in contributions. "They could put it in someone else's campaign."

The largest refunds came from retiring senators such as Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who turned back more than 600 donations worth $1.1 million, and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who refunded about $700,000. They both announced this year that they wouldn't run again.

In all, House and Senate candidates have raised about $1.2 billion for this year's midterm elections, which will decide control of Congress, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Democrats, who control Congress, gave back about $10 million, more than double the $4.4 million returned by GOP committees. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is still reviewing recent campaign reports filed by senators, so the number of refunds may increase.

A candidate who drops out before a primary election is required by law to refund contributions specifically targeted to help in the general election. The candidate may choose to refund money donated for the primary but is not required to do so.

Robert Kelner, who heads the election and political law practice at the Covington & Burling law firm, said he has heard from more clients this year who want their money back.

"Because it's a turbulent election year, we're seeing more serious campaigns derailing," he said. "That may be what is engendering broader-than-usual efforts by donors to retrieve their funds."

Other candidates who have made large refunds in recent months include:

• Eric Massa, a New York Democrat who resigned from the House in March because of an ethics investigation, returned 42 contributions worth $62,000.

• Former Houston mayor Bill White, a Democrat, returned about $1.6 million sent to his Texas Senate campaign after announcing he would run for governor instead, according to FEC data. A spokeswoman, Katy Bacon, said White will file an amended report showing that only $1.2 million was refunded.

"Most of those donors turned around and gave ... to Bill White's campaign for governor," Bacon said.

• Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, returned about $330,000 after he announced he wouldn't seek another term. "I didn't request anything," said Umberto Fedeli, a donor who received $2,300 back from the senator. "We just got a letter with a check."

The House GOP campaign committee has been pressuring Democrats to return money from Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who faces a House trial on 13 ethics charges. Lawmakers such as Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Pa., and Indiana Democratic Senate nominee Brad Ellsworth have donated equivalent amounts to charity.

Richard Hasen of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles believes candidates may be skittish because it is easier for the public to scrutinize campaign finances.

"Because of the Internet and the increasing ability to quickly find out who's taking money from whom, the campaigns might be more interested in getting rid of controversial contributions," he said.