A California Democratic treasurer stands accused of the ultimate political betrayal.
By JOHN BRESNAHAN & JONATHAN ALLEN | 9/14/11 11:37 PM EDT
A California Democratic treasurer stands accused of the ultimate political betrayal: stealing from campaign accounts that she was entrusted with overseeing.
For a handful of Golden State Democrats in Congress, allegations that Kinde Durkee, a well-known political operative with access to hundreds of bank accounts, stole money from her clients are a painful reminder that they are vulnerable to their own aides and advisers.
But what’s remarkable about the Durkee case is how common such scandals have become in today’s Big Money politics. Just in the past few years, treasurers for congressional campaigns have been found to have illegally used campaign dough for everything from Boston Red Sox season tickets to paying their kids’ college tuition to casino junkets. In one case, a campaign treasurer bought a Porsche and a BMW with his boss’s reelection funds.
And it seems nobody is immune from these scandals: House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and campaign committees in the House and Senate have been victimized by staffers with access to campaign accounts.
The California case, however, may become one of the largest campaign embezzlement scandals in political history, and it has some lawmakers realizing they need better systems in place to monitor their campaign funds.
Democratic Reps. Loretta Sanchez and Susan Davis and the Los Angeles County Democratic Party have already announced that they’ve lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to Durkee’s allegedly long-running illegal activities. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is afraid that her $5 million-plus campaign fund may have been “wiped out,” although her aides say they’re not sure how much may be missing.
Durkee was arrested by the FBI on Sept. 2 on a federal fraud complaint for allegedly diverting more than $670,000 from the campaign account of a California assemblyman. She has been accused of using the money to pay her American Express bill and her mother’s nursing home costs. She is now free on a $200,000 bond, and California officials have begun to move against her company, Durkee & Associates, although campaign finance experts say it may be months, or even years, before forensic accountants are able to unravel what she did.
Current and former lawmakers who have gone through similar experiences described their situations as incredibly painful, a wrenching violation of their trust by some of the closest friends and political associates that has left them permanently scarred.
“The challenge for the members is … to have to [go] through different stages: surprise, disappointment, feeling violated and then the recognition that they have to go through, depending on how it was stolen, they’re going to have to [refile] every one of their [Federal Election Commission] reports for three to four years, go back over every one and redo them because they’re going to be wrong,” said former Rep. Chris Shays.
Shays’s former campaign manager, Michael Sohn, stole in excess of $250,000 from the Connecticut Republican’s reelection committee from 2005 to 2008. Shays was defeated in 2008, failing in his bid for a 12th term. Sohn, who is now serving a 37-month sentence in federal prison, used the money to fuel a highflying lifestyle, including tickets to Boston Red Sox games, expensive meals and limousine trips, casino junkets and even a donation to his local synagogue.
“I can tell you that every member who trusted someone is first going to be stunned that someone they trusted did it, and then they’re going to be amazed with how it happened,” Shays added. “And then they’re going to realize if three people, or even two people, compared notes, they would have been caught sooner.”
There are other similar stories of betrayal out there.
Andrew McCrosson, former campaign treasurer for Rep. Frank LoBiondo, was sentenced last week to 30 months in federal prison after being caught stealing $458,000 from the New Jersey Republican’s campaign.
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