For more than two years, the Tea Party Express' political war chest has been filled with thousands of dollars in donations from a dead woman.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics' research, Joan Snyder Holmes of Guam made three donations in the autumn of 2009 to the group's political action committee -- known as the Our Country Deserves Better PAC. The donations together totaled $2,500.
The Tea Party Express' PAC furthermore reported receiving a lump-sum donation of an additional $5,000 from Joan Holmes in September, according to the Center's review of campaign finance records it filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Such activity would have been unremarkable had Joan Holmes not died of cancer on Feb. 1, 2007. She was cremated, and her ashes are now buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia (her grave is pictured right).
Joan Holmes is the late wife of media entrepreneur Lee Holmes, who himself has in recent years ranked among the most prolific political donors in Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean. And Lee Holmes was one of the first donors to the upstart Our Country Deserves Better PAC, which played a prominent role in electing conservative Republicans during the 2010 election cycle.
How exactly Joan Holmes made the donations from beyond the grave is shrouded in mystery: Both Lee Holmes and a Tea Party Express official deny they're responsible.
Lee Holmes, for his part, told OpenSecrets Blog that he did not make the contributions in his wife's name, and he contended it was "wrong" for her name to appear in any group's campaign finance reports at all.
"I assure you I did not make these or any donations in her name, and cannot see why anyone else would use her name," Holmes told OpenSecrets Blog.
Holmes, who himself has given roughly the legal allowable amounts to the Tea Party Express' PAC in the past two years, suggested that the political action committee could have filed erroneous reports.
"I made a number of Tea Party donations, but used my own personal credit cards," he said. "Whether I made donations on those dates and they entered them [under her name] in error, I don't know."
Sal Russo, the chief strategist of the Tea Party Express, told OpenSecrets Blog that he was surprised to hear that a deceased woman's name appeared among the group's contributors.
"She died in 2007? You're kidding me?!" he said.
"Whatever we show in the reports is what people put there," Russo continued. "Ninety-nine percent of our contributions are done electronically on the internet. We don't have direct contact with donors."
Russo told OpenSecrets Blog that he would direct the group's treasurer to look into the donations.
If the donations are illegal, the group's clock is ticking.
The Federal Election Commission provides guidance to political committees on how to handle contributions of questionable legality, FEC spokesman Christian Hilland told OpenSecrets Blog.
This guidance includes the admonition: "If a committee deposits a contribution that appears to be legal and later discovers that it is prohibited (based on new information not available when the contribution was deposited), the committee must disgorge the contribution within 30 days of making the discovery."
In cases of illegal or excessive contributions, if the contributor's identity is known, the committee must refund the funds to the source of the original contribution. In other cases, cutting a check to the U.S. Treasury for the amount in question is an approved alternate method of shedding the contributions.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the maximum penalty for knowingly and willingly making illegal campaign contributions in the name of another is "five years in prison and a fine of not less than 300 percent of the amount involved in the violation and not more than the greater of $50,000 or 1,000 percent of the amount involved in the violation."
'GENERALLY, THE DEAD AREN'T SUPPOSED TO GIVE'
Political donations by deceased individuals occur, but are a rarity, election lawyers and campaign finance experts say. Such donations carry certain risks and have parameters that must be met to avoid legal penalties.
"Any time a contribution is made in the name of a deceased person, it's potentially problematic," Larry Noble, an attorney at D.C. law firm Skadden Arps and former executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, told OpenSecrets Blog. "Generally, the dead aren't supposed to give."
Federal law prohibits contributions in the name of another person.
Noble said there are "very limited" circumstances when it's allowable for political contributions to come in the name of a deceased person. Before a person's death, for instance, he or she could establish a trust and leave specific instructions about how to dole out the funds, he said.
The FEC has approved such contributions, officially called "testamentary bequests," to a handful of specific political committees in several advisory opinions over the years. This kind of contribution is legal so long as the contribution does not exceed the $5,000 per year federal limit and the deceased person's trust is controlled by someone not affiliated with the benefiting PAC.
Loyola Law School of Los Angeles law professor Justin Levitt said another simple explanation for the donations in Joan Holmes' name could be confusion over a joint bank account.
"If the donation came from a joint account (and doesn't exceed the husband's limits), it may be that the husband is making a perfectly legitimate contribution for himself, from funds that he actually controls," Levitt wrote in an e-mail to OpenSecrets Blog.
But such situations do not appear to apply to Joan and Lee Holmes, given Lee Holmes' assertion that no contributions ought to have been made in his wife's name. Moreover, Lee Holmes himself has made contributions in his own name -- and that reach legal donation limits -- to the Our Country Deserves Better PAC.
LEE HOLMES BECAME PROLIFIC DONOR TO 'HELP SAVE OUR COUNTRY'
Joan Holmes was married to Lee Holmes for more than 50 years.
Lee Holmes, a retired U.S. Marine Corps Reserve colonel and Korean War veteran, started the first successful cable television company on the U.S. territory of Guam in 1971. For decades, he worked in the radio, TV and communications industry, and Joan Holmes worked alongside him. Holmes' current company is called Southern Media.
While she was alive, Joan Holmes made no reportable campaign contributions to federal candidates or political committees. Prior to her February 2007 death, Lee Holmes wasn't a very active donor either, never contributing more than $1,000 during a two-year election cycle since he first began giving in 2004. These initial federal-level beneficiaries were South Dakota Republican John Thune, Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum and the border security-oriented Declaration Alliance's Minuteman Civil Defense Corps PAC.
That paucity of political giving all changed recently.
Days after the Tea Party Express' Our Country Deserves Better PAC registered with the FEC in August 2008, Lee Holmes cut the group a check for $500. By Election Day 2008, he had given the group another $3,000.
Between August and November in 2008, overall, Holmes doled out $20,100 to his preferred candidates and groups. His donations included $8,000 to the Republican National Committee, $2,300 to Republican presidential candidate John McCain and $2,300 to Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), who was defeated that year by Democrat Tom Perriello and made waves last year for joining the Constitution Party.
And Lee Holmes generosity to his favored political interests continued to climb after Democrat Barack Obama's election as president.
During the 2010 election cycle, Holmes extended financial support to nearly two dozen groups and candidates. Overall, he personally contributed more than $72,000, although some of this sum was refunded due to multiple contributions above federal limits, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. (And this figure doesn't include the $7,500 given to the Tea Party Express' PAC in his late wife's name.)
His top beneficiary? The Tea Party Express' Our Country Deserves Better PAC. In 2010, Holmes contributed $4,900 to the group. And the previous year, he gave them $5,500 -- $500 more than the legal limit. An image the FEC filing from the Tea Party Express' PAC showing his "aggregate year-to-date" amount at $5,500 is below:
According to the Center's review of campaign finance records, the Tea Party Express refunded $335 of this excessive contribution in late 2009. Its unclear why the remaining $165 was not refunded.
The FEC has the discretion to fine committees that do not return excessive contributions. Russo, of the Tea Party Express, told OpenSecretsBlog, the group's treasurer would also look into this situation.
Holmes told OpenSecrets Blog his giving has skyrocketed over the years because he wanted to "help save our country."
"The whole country is up in arms at the direction Washington is plunging our country into -- money-printing inflation and unsustainable debt loads by copying European-style socialism," Holmes wrote in an e-mail.
"I am a retired Marine Corps Reserve colonel and Korean War veteran," he continued. "I am 80. When I was 17, I took an oath to defend the Constitution. I made donations to the Tea Party and to reform candidates to help reinstate the Constitution, and clean out the corruption of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid trio and their corrupt liberal supporters who are ruining our country."
NOTABLE BENEFICIARIES, OCCASIONAL EXCESSIVE CONTRIBUTIONS
During the 2010 election cycle, the Our Country Deserves Better PAC wasn't the only group that Holmes, perhaps inadvertently, contributed to in excess of the legal limit.
Federal campaign finance records show he made excessive contributions to Republican U.S. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell of Delaware, who unexpectedly defeated moderate Republican Mike Castle in a primary election last year thanks, in part, to significant spending by the Tea Party Express on her behalf.
O'Donnell's campaign reported collecting $8,300 from Holmes last year, and it refunded $3,900 of that sum back to him to comply with federal law.
Campaign finance records also show Lee Holmes also made excessive contributions in 2010 to the Western Representation PAC, a conservative group spent more than $235,000 on independent expenditures in the various races they targeted, including about $138,000 expressly advocating for the election of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle in Nevada.
The group refunded Holmes' excessive $2,500 in contributions in October.
"When you're a nonprofit group, obviously, you hate to turn down money," Roger Stockton, the group's treasurer, told OpenSecrets Blog. "But [FEC rules] make it very clear that you don't want to hang onto it."
Conservative groups and candidates across the country, meanwhile, have been happy to hang onto donations from Holmes when they do not exceed legal limits. Among Holmes' other notable contributions this year:
- $4,000 to Angle in her bid to unseat Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
- $5,000 to Dick Morris' Super PAC for America
- $4,900 to Alaska Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller, who defeated incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a Republican primary but later lost the general election after her successful write-in campaign
- $4,400 to Americans for New Leadership, another "super PAC" that advocated for Reid's defeat
- $2,500 to the leadership PAC of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who excelled at using his Senate Conservatives Fund as a vehicle for conduit contributions to fellow conservatives
- $1,000 to North Carolina Republican House candidate Ilario Pantano, a former U.S. Marine Corps officer who once killed two unarmed Iraqi detainees (Pantano says the killing was in self-defense and the military ultimately dropped the murder charges it brought against him)
- $750 to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), the chairwoman of the House Tea Party Caucus
DONATIONS LEAVE A TRAIL, BUT WHERE DOES IT LEAD?
So why did Joan Holmes' name appear among the names of living campaign contributors? Whatever the answer, election law experts agree making a contribution in the name of a dead person would not be a smart way to get around campaign finance donation limits.
Levitt, of Loyola Law School, told OpenSecrets Blog, the penalties and likelihood of getting caught "tend to stave off any great incentive to cheat in this way."
If someone was trying to perpetrate fraud, it was a "particularly foolish" way to go about it, Levitt continued.
"Donations, like votes, have paper records," Levitt said. "It necessarily leaves a trail of the unlawful conduct."