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Dead people gave nearly $600K to campaigns since 2009

12:46 PM, Aug 4, 2013   |    comments
A super PAC allied with Sen. Mitch McConnell says a software glitch recorded a donation after the donor's death.(Photo: Stephen Lance Dennee, AP)(Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON - The dead can't vote, but they can give money to politicians.

Thirty-two people listed on federal campaign records as "deceased" have contributed more than $586,000 to congressional and presidential candidates and political parties since Jan. 1, 2009, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Federal Election Commission filings.

Last week, news emerged of a possible donation by a deceased contributor in a high-profile Senate race. A super PAC aiding Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's re-election reported Wednesday that it had received a $100,000 contribution from Houston home builder and GOP mega-donor Bob Perry on June 3 - nearly two months after his April 13 death.

Officials with the super PAC, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, said a computer-software glitch inserted the wrong contribution date on its filing, and quickly submitted a new report to the FEC showing the donation had been received the day before Perry died.

But the episode put a spotlight on the legality of campaign contributions from the departed. Under federal campaign rules, individuals can make candidates and political committees the beneficiaries of their estates, much in the way they can leave money to favorite charities.

Stefan Passantino, a campaign-finance lawyer in Washington, said bequeathing donations to politicians and parties is an option for people who were active in elections and believe "the best thing I can do with my money is to help make the world a better place."

Federal rules establish some restrictions on political giving from the grave, however. The donations, for instance, must comply with applicable contribution limits. Currently, an individual cannot donate more than $5,200 to a federal candidate during an election cycle and no more than $32,400 to a political party each year.

In its 2010 Citizens United ruling, the Supreme Court struck down limits on independent spending by corporations and unions - helping pave the way for super PACs such as Kentuckians for Strong Leadership to take contributions of any size. But the court has upheld limits on contributions made directly to candidates and political parties, arguing those open to the door to potential corruption.

A case now pending before a federal appellate court in Washington, D.C., seeks to overturn those limits for deceased donors. The lawsuit involves Raymond Groves Burrington, a Knoxville, Tenn., man who left more than $217,000 in 2007 to the Libertarian National Committee.

The party argues it should have received the money in a lump-sum, rather than annual installments. "This is pure free speech," said Alan Gura, an attorney representing the Libertarian Party. "A dead person can't corrupt someone."

Gura said Burrington wasn't known to party officials before his death.

His Knoxville attorney, Steven Bowling, and a neighbor, Glenn Sullivan, who helped manage his affairs before his death, said they have no idea why Burrington donated to the party. Sullivan described Burrington as a day trader and said he had no children.

A trust handling Burrington's bequest already has distributed $153,200 to the Libertarian National Committee, making him the top deceased giver to any party or federal candidate since Jan. 1, 2009, and the party one of the top recipients of money of bequeathed donations, the analysis shows. (The Libertarians also received $10,000 from a deceased Texas man.)

In first place: the Democratic National Committee, which took in more than $245,000. Party officials declined comment.

Follow @fschouten on Twitter.

Fredreka Schouten and Christopher Schnaars, USA TODAY

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