WMBF Investigates: 'Zombie campaign' gets new treasurer

Updated: Jul. 31, 2018 at 1:55 PM EDT
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HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - The son of former South Carolina Congressman Robin Tallon is no longer the treasurer for his father's decades old campaign account.

A letter to the Federal Election Commission announced the change. It was filed alongside Tallon's most recent Report of Receipts and Disbursements. His son's resignation became effective July 16, 2018, according to the letter. Wilson MacEwen, a certified public accountant based in Sumter, will take over the position. He has worked with the Tallons before, according to FEC filings. In May 2017, Wilson MacEwen and Co. was paid $3,500 for tax preparation.

The announcement follows a WMBF News investigation that uncovered thousands of dollars were paid to Robert M. Tallon, III, as the treasurer of a thriving campaign committee that hasn't funded a run for office for his father in 25 years. FEC officials say family members are permitted to work as paid campaign staff. The problem with Tallon's campaign is that there isn't one.

In our story in May, the Campaign Legal Center, a federal watchdog group that supports strong enforcement of finance laws, called Robin Tallon the poster child for the problems they see with what's called zombie campaigns. They believed Tallon's spending over the last quarter of a century could be a recipe for corruption.

"The challenge when we are talking about a former officeholder like Robin Tallon, when he is no longer mounting an active campaign, it's difficult to see what the justification is for paying thousands of dollars to a family member for treasurer duties or compliance purposes," said Brendan Fischer, a representative of the Campaign Legal Center. The Federal Election Campaign Act requires all political committees to have a designated treasurer. WMBF News reached out to Robin Tallon and Wilson MacEwen for comment on the recent change. They have not responded at this time.

With no apparent run for office in his near future, Tallon has paid for computers with cash from his campaign account. According to campaign finance reports, he's also reimbursed himself thousands of dollars for unknown reasons.

The FEC says campaign funds can be used to reimburse a candidate. However, the money can only be for bona fide campaign-related expenses. In Tallon's case, he doesn't give a clear reason for how dollars paid to himself were used.

Other notable payments from Tallon's campaign account include these:

  • In 2007, Tallon put nearly $4,000 toward a Dell computer. Then again, in 2014, he bought another computer for more than $2,000.
  • Just last year, Tallon spent almost $1,000 on an iPad.

When WMBF News asked the FEC if anyone makes sure these purchases are used solely for official campaign business, the FEC's deputy press officer, Christian Hilland, said "not exactly." The Campaign Legal Center has asked the FEC to clarify how former candidates and former officeholders can use campaign funds.

"I think there's a strong argument that many former officeholders are in fact violating the law as currently written, but the widespread nature of this problem indicates that there is some ambiguity (to) FEC's rules," Fischer said.

The Campaign Legal Center is also asking the FEC to set a clearer time limit for just how long a former office holder's campaign account can remain open. The FEC seems to be listening. Beginning with reports filed in July 2018, the FEC will start reviewing dormant committees' use of campaign funds more closely. Since Tallon just filed his July Report of Receipts and Disbursements, we asked the FEC if they found any issues with Tallon's committee.

The FEC responded with this statement:

The Commission recently announced that it would examine the use of campaign funds by dormant committees as part of its normal review process, beginning in July 2018. The Commission stated, 'In a case where the Commission would like to clarify a dormant committee's use of campaign funds, it will send a verification letter to seek additional information for the public record. While the Press Office may not comment on specific candidates or committees, we can note that at this time the public record shows no Request for Additional Information (RFAI) that has been sent to the Tallon for Congress committee with respect to disclosure reports that it has filed in 2018. However, if the Commission were to request clarification of particular transactions or other financial activity in the future, any RFAI sent to the committee would be placed on the public record on the committee's disclosure page on the Commission's website.

In May, WMBF News tried to speak with Tallon face to face, going to two different addresses listed for him and his committee. No one answered the door during either attempt.

Tallon did respond to an email message just an hour before the original story aired with this statement:

I have never used one cent of this money for personal use. Have given away to charitable causes many thousands of dollars and have have [sic] actively managed the investments in this account to increase over million dollars. I'm currently setting up two charitable foundations one one [sic] to help young people manage there [sic] income and acquire wealth and another to focus on helping economic development in the rural areas if the Pee Dee...Finally we have followed in intent and letter of the law. One might argue it should be changed because of the ambiguity.

WMBF also asked Tallon why he has kept his campaign account open for so long and if he ever intended to run again. His response was to check media reports, as he said he's been encouraged to run for governor and U.S. senator "many times."

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