Political Gifts From Beyond the Grave: Dead Woman Donates Thousands of Dollars to Tea Party Express

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Open Secrets Blog

Political Gifts From Beyond the Grave: Dead Woman Donates Thousands of Dollars to Tea Party Express

Michael Beckel

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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

"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.

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.


Joan Holmes was married to Lee Holmes for more than 50 years.

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.

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.

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.

Lee Holmes' generosity to his favored political interests continued to
climb after Democrat Barack Obama's election as president.

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.)

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:

to the Center's review of campaign finance records, the Tea Party
Express refunded $335 of this excessive contribution in late 2009. It's
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."

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.

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."

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.

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."

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:

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."

for Responsive Politics Executive Director Sheila Krumholz, senior
researcher Douglas Weber and researcher Carolyn Sharpe contributed to
this report.

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