WASHINGTON – Political donations are alive and well, even if the donors themselves aren’t.
At least 100 dead people, including five from Maryland, contributed more than $1.3 million to federal candidates and political parties in the last 14 years, according to a study by the political watchdog group Center for Public Integrity.
Dead Marylanders have donated at least $3,750 to both major parties since 1991, according to public records.
They include the estates of Frank J. DeFrancis in Laurel, which gave $1,000 to Helen Delich Bentley in 1991; Onis Johnson in Lonaconing, which gave $1,000 to the Republican National Committee in 1995; Mary W. King in Gaithersburg, which gave $1,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2000; Virginia Smucker of Bethesda, which donated $250 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2000; and Mary Z. Brown in Kensington, which gave $500 to Rep. Connie Morella’s campaign for Congress in 2002.
King’s, Smucker’s and Johnson’s contribution reports list “deceased” under employer information. All but Smucker’s donation are recorded as coming from the deceased’s estate.
There is no prohibition against such giving, said Federal Election Commission spokesman Ian Stirton.
“You get to control money after you die,” Stirton said.
The commission has determined in several advisory opinions that a trust created by a person’s will, called a testamentary trust, is a legal entity and “qualified as a person” under the Federal Election Campaign Act, Stirton said.
However, such donations are still subject to personal contribution limits, he added.
A tongue-in-cheek news release for the Center for Public Integrity study called such contributions “an underground movement” totaling $245,000 for the 2000 elections and almost $680,000 for 2002.
No contributions were reported from deceased Marylanders during those years.
An elderly woman who answered the phone at Virginia Smucker’s listed address identified herself as Estelle Smucker, Virginia’s sister.
She said she didn’t know if Virginia Smucker had made political contributions in her lifetime nor if the contributions would continue.
“It’s been many years ago. Twenty years ago,” she said about her sister’s death. “I don’t know the exact date.” Then she hung up.
A message left for King’s estate was not returned.
Such donations are not different than any other payments made by estates, said James Browning, executive director of the nonprofit Common Cause Maryland.
But they still raise questions of accountability, Browning said. “If there are illegal contributions made, who will be held responsible?”
Stirton said he had never come across that question before.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a case involving that,” he said.