WASHINGTON – Michele Bachmann hasn’t run for office in nearly three years, but the former Minnesota congresswoman is still raising cash and spending lavishly, dropping $300 on limousines in New York right around Thanksgiving and staying last fall at the luxurious L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills, where most rooms go for $400 a night or higher.
Records show Bachmann for Congress spent roughly $25,000 in the last three months of 2014 on airline tickets, a private club membership and pricey dinners in Washington D.C., Los Angeles and New York. Her campaign even paid $470 to renew the plates on a vehicle in St. Paul last December — weeks before she stepped down from office.
It was May 2013 when Bachmann launched a predawn YouTube video in which she declared she would not seek a fifth congressional term. But since then, the provocative Tea Party conservative has continued to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, mainly by selling off her donor lists to other organizations. Federal records show that in the last three months of 2014, Bachmann raised $170,000 from selling e-mail lists.
She raised more than $800,000 in both small and large donations in 2013 — some of those arriving after she announced she wasn’t running for office. She refunded about $14,000 to supporters in 2013, presumably after she made that announcement.
During the first few months of this year she raised nearly $5,000 in online donations, records show.
A fierce advocate for balancing the federal budget, Bachmann has consistently carried campaign debt.
Records show that she has chipped away at her debts to campaign vendors, mostly accountants and telemarketing companies, gradually paying down the $30,328 she owed in March, 2014 to about $1,900 at the end of last year. But she accrued more debt early this year and owed about $4,000 to vendors, according to April filings.
Bachmann has $1.6 million cash on hand.
“It certainly raises a question: When she has money to pay the debt, why is she continuing to raise money?” said Dale Eisman, a spokesman at Common Cause, a nonprofit advocacy group. “She is a private citizen now, but she raises money as a candidate and she needs to account for it. This all raises a question she ought to answer.”
Bachmann departed Congress in December after four terms representing Minnesota’s Sixth District. She did not return requests for comment for this story.
Federal rules do allow members, even retired members, to continue to raise money if they have campaign-related debt. Campaign finance watchdogs and experts say it is not unusual for retiring members of Congress to engage in a flurry of spending at the end of their careers, and the expenses are considered within bounds so long as they are for a “legitimate campaign or political purposes” and the member is not converting funds for personal use, including vacations.
House Ethics Committee rules are a little more stringent. They require members, while in office, to use campaign funds only for bona fide campaign purposes. Because Bachmann is no longer in office, she is not bound by House Ethics Committee rules.
But her spending may raise issues about what constitutes a “legitimate campaign expense.”
“On balance, I think there are some specific expenditures that should require an explanation,” said Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer and partner at Akerman LLP in Washington. “The question is, how were these related to her campaign or her duties as an officeholder?”
The runner stumbles
At her political zenith, Bachmann was a leading 2011 Republican presidential contender in a crowded field of candidates trying to unseat President Obama.
The Iowa native clinched the state’s now-defunct Straw Poll and fought her way to the top through old-fashioned campaigning at the State Fair and cruising around Iowa’s mostly small towns in a big bus.
She stumbled after that, though, and placed only sixth in the far more important Iowa caucuses in January 2012. She left the presidential campaign with $1 million in debt and returned to Minnesota for grueling fight to keep her congressional seat. She won by just 4,300 votes.
At the same time, Bachmann and her campaign advisers faced questions by the Federal Election Commission, the FBI and the House Ethics Committee about questionable use of campaign funds to promote her book. Just six months after she won re-election, she announced that term would be her last. Federal officials are still probing her campaign finances from that race.
In Congress, Bachmann founded the Tea Party Caucus and frequently spoke out on conservative causes.
During her last 13 months in office, Bachmann traveled to Bejing, Hong Kong, Malta and the United Arab Emirates on taxpayer-funded trips to learn about various issues. Her plane tickets alone, according to House records, cost more than $90,000 from December 2013 to December 2014.
In final media interviews before leaving Capitol Hill last year, Bachmann was always sanguine about her future after Congress. She said she wanted to play a role in the 2016 presidential race and she has kept her political action committee, dubbed MichelePAC. In 2014 it raised $630,000.
Recent fundraising e-mails show she continues to raise money for MichelePAC, using recent ISIL tragedies and stories about Benghazi to lure in mostly small donors.
Beyond fundraising pleas, the once-high profile Bachmann has remained remarkably low-key in the last six months, appearing occasionally on Fox News and on the radio. In March, she filmed a cameo appearance for the movie “Sharknado 3” in front of the White House. In May, she delivered a commencement address at The King’s College, a Christian school in New York.
President Obama joked about Bachmann a couple of months ago in remarks delivered at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
“Just this week, Michele Bachmann actually predicted that I would bring about the biblical end of days. Now, that’s a legacy. That’s big. I mean, Lincoln, Washington, they didn’t do that,” Obama said, to a room full of laughter.
Bachmann tweeted the next day, “Thanks for the shoutout @BarackObama at last night’s #WHCD. Keep the #legacy going strong!”