On Saturday, GOP Rep.-elect Ross Spano of Florida admitted to the Federal Elections Commission that he’d borrowed $180,000 from two individuals he described as close friends around the same time that he loaned his campaign $167,000, a move he admitted “may have been in violation” of federal campaign finance law. Several election law experts who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times agreed, pointing out that loans made to candidates with the intention of helping a campaign need to adhere to campaign finance limits, which allow donors to give just $2,700 each for the primary and general elections.
Spano told the FEC in a letter prepared by his lawyer that both he and his friends, Karen Hunt and Cary Carreno, believed at the time that, “based on the consultations they had at the time,” they were “acting in full compliance with the law,” but “now recognize that some of the proceeds from the personal loans … may have been in violation of the Federal Campaign Finance Act.” Spano added that he expects to repay Hunt and Carreno by the end of the week.
This story didn’t get much attention during the competitive general election for Florida’s 15th Congressional District because Spano failed to file the required personal financial disclosure forms when they were due all the way back in May, then blew past a July extension. Democrat Kristen Carlson pressured Spano to follow the law, leading him to belatedly file just three days before Election Day. The Times published a story the day before the election reporting that Spano’s friends appeared to be the source of large loan the candidate had made to his bid, but it came too late for this to impact the race.
Spano wound up beating Carlson 53-47, but his loans only began to attract real notice after his victory. Carlson asked the FBI to investigate whether Spano had illegally funded his campaign, and while Spano’s team dismissed the request as a political stunt, Spano wrote to the FEC days later admitting he’d made what looks like, at best, a huge mistake.
Spano is certainly hoping that this story will quickly go away, but he may be in for a rude awakening. Back in 2015, New Hampshire Republican Rep. Frank Guinta found himself in a world of pain after he admitted that he’d received an illegal six-figure donation from his parents during his initial 2010 race, which he, too, unsuccessfully tried to characterize as a loan.
Guinta paid an FEC fine, but that didn’t appease state Republicans, who demanded that he resign, or at least not run for re-election. Guinta didn’t listen and his fundraising dried up, never to recover. The incumbent only narrowly won his primary in 2016 and ended up getting abandoned by national Republicans in the general, and he lost his seat that November.
Spano may get luckier, but he shouldn’t count on a smooth path through 2020, especially after this. Indeed, Carlson and a few other Democrats have already expressed interest in challenging him.
Spano could also have problems with his own party. Former state Rep. Neil Combee, who lost the August primary to Spano 44-34, hasn’t yet brought up the possibility of a rematch, but he sounds pissed. Combee recounted to Florida Politics that he had a financial edge over Spano, but then an unexpected barrage of attack mailers came his way during the primary. Combee says, “We were blindsided in broad daylight. Now it all makes sense.”
Combee also didn’t buy his old rival’s excuse that he’d gotten bad legal advice, asking how Spano, who had been running for state attorney general before he jumped into this race, could have so little understanding of the law. Combee added, “If you commit a crime, then you are a criminal.”