Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) talks to a crowd of 200 supporters and critics outside of his North County office on Feb. 21, 2017. (Video screen grab by Matthew Bowler/KPBS)
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) talks to a crowd of 200 supporters and critics outside of his North County office on Feb. 21, 2017. (Video screen grab by Matthew Bowler/KPBS)

Rep. Darrell Issa has refunded nearly $180,000 in donations, including a contribution from Koch Industries, since dropping out of the race for Congress.

Why this matters

Politicians have a lot of leeway over how they spend their donors’ money, even after they drop out of an election as Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, did in January.

The Vista Republican announced in January he wouldn’t seek a 10th term in the House, but he already had more than $1 million in his campaign coffer. Federal campaign finance rules spell out what he can do with the money.

One regulation requires Issa to refund contributions earmarked for his 2018 general election campaign, which won’t be happening. So on March 7 and 8, Issa returned 88 general election donations.

Most of the refunded cash came from individuals, but some came from political action committees. That includes the PAC for Koch Industries, run by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. It also includes the Ernst & Young PAC, along with PACs representing media company Cox Enterprises and Best Buy employees.

Issa has also started distributing leftover funds from his campaign committee. He gave $5,000 each to the Republican parties of San Diego and Orange counties. He gave $2,000 to Republican state tax board member Diane Harkey, who Issa endorsed for his open seat.

The race is considered one of the most competitive in Congress this year with 16 candidates running for the seat. According to a 10News and Union-Tribune poll, Republican Rocky Chávez and Democrat Doug Applegate are ahead, but Democrat Mike Levin has raised the most in individual contributions of any candidate in the race.

Issa’s campaign had $770,000 in cash as of March 31, and had no debts or loans to pay off. But no law says Issa ever has to shut down his campaign committee, and it’s common for politicians to keep their committees operating.

“A candidate may want to keep their options open,” said Brendan Glavin, data manager at the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. “A candidate may say, well, maybe I might want to run for Senate, or maybe I might want to run for House again in the future, so that might be a reason not to shut all this down and keep their foot in the water.”

Issa, one of the richest men in Congress, is also connected to a second political committee that’s still operating. It’s called Invest in a Strong and Secure America and is referred to as a Leadership PAC because it’s sponsored by Issa, a federal officeholder. The PAC can’t raise or spend money for Issa’s campaign, but it can fund his travel, administrative costs and other non-campaign expenses. It can accept and give donations within limits.

Issa’s Leadership PAC had almost $145,000 in the bank as of March 31. It spent more than $7,000 on events at Longboat Key Club & Resort in Florida after Issa dropped out of the race.

After Issa leaves office, his Leadership PAC can operate like it always has without any new restrictions.

“Certainly it wouldn’t necessarily have the same weight as it did when he was an officeholder, but that doesn’t mean the committee can’t keep going,” Glavin said.

Issa is connected to a third political committee — the Darrell Issa Victory Fund — that has helped in his fundraising efforts. The committee gave Issa $15,000 on the day he announced he wasn’t running for office and officially shut down in April after getting rid of all its leftover cash.

Issa’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

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Jill Castellano is a former investigative data coordinator for inewsource. When she's not deep in a spreadsheet or holed up reporting and writing her next story, she's probably hiking, running or rock climbing. She also loves playing board games and discussing the latest chapters with her book club....