President Bush's 2000 presidential campaign should repay the government about $700,000, but taxpayers owe Bush's election effort some money too, federal auditors say.
Former Vice President Al Gore's 2000 primary and general election campaign committees' owe money as well, Federal Election Commission auditors said.
They are questioning $426,836 in Gore's primary campaign funding and $14,887 in spending by his general election campaign. Gore's campaign has already repaid some of the money: Auditors say the primary campaign still owes the U.S. Treasury $372,245 and the general election campaign owes $3,262.
The commission was to consider auditors' recommendations Thursday.
The Bush campaign is disputing the audit. At most, it owes a fraction of the amount auditors say it does, campaign attorney Ben Ginsberg said.
Gore's primary and general election campaign funds were audited because both received federal money; Bush accepted public financing only for his general election campaign, so only that fund was audited.
In all, FEC auditors raised questions about $1 million from Bush's campaign — of which about a quarter involved interest payments earned by the campaign on the taxpayer money it received. The Bush campaign has already repaid $296,119 to cover the interest and a small amount of stale-dated checks that were never cashed by vendors.
Auditors say the campaign still owes the treasury $723,176 in public funds it received, including:
—$498,658 for phone banks operated by several state party committees to get out the vote for Bush and other Republicans. Auditors say Bush was the only candidate identified by name in the phone calls made within a week of the election, and the parties used paid professionals to conduct the calls, so at least half of the phone campaigns' cost should be treated as in-kind contributions to the Bush campaign.
—$95,509 for campaign-related flights on corporate planes.
—$129,009 in spending that exceeded the limit for candidates receiving public financing.
Ginsberg said the campaign was challenging several audit findings, including the phone bank costs. Ginsberg said the auditors had no authority to allocate half of the phone bank costs to the campaign. There is no law or FEC policy interpreting how to allocate phone bank scripts, he said.
The campaign contends it should cover a fourth of the phone bank costs.
The auditors recommended that taxpayers pay $382,996 to reimburse the Bush recount fund — the account set up by Bush when the election went into overtime to pay for the campaign recount expenses using private donations — for some staff salaries and overhead it covered. Those expenses were unrelated to the recount effort, the auditors said, so they should be treated as postelection winding-down costs covered by the campaign.
Bush attorneys disagree, writing to the commission, "The Bush-Cheney Recount Fund does not want the taxpayers' money.''
The money questioned in the audit of Gore's primary campaign included $424,351 in leftover public campaign funds and $2,485 for bill payments or refund checks the recipients didn't cash. The amount questioned in the audit of Gore's general election campaign include $14,887 for interest the campaign fund earned and for checks it sent that were never cashed.
The $1 million in Bush campaign spending that auditors questioned wouldn't be the most a presidential campaign had to hand over.
Commission audits of the 1996 presidential campaigns initially recommended that Republican Bob Dole return a record $17.7 million to the Treasury and then-Democratic President Bill Clinton repay $7 million.
The FEC ultimately reduced those amounts to about $3.7 million — still a record — for Dole and $143,000 for Clinton.