Edwards treasurer never saw 2011 campaign reports

February 16, 2012 - 4:45 PM

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The treasurer for John Edwards' 2008 presidential bid says the campaign has been electronically signing his name to federal spending reports without his knowledge and he wants it to stop.

Campaign finance experts, including a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said there is nothing in the law that addresses whether Edwards' staff can use the treasurer's name to affirm the accuracy of documents he has never seen. The situation shows that federal elections regulations have not yet caught up with electronic filing, the experts said.

A lawyer for Edwards said the campaign has done nothing wrong.

Julius L. Chambers, a Charlotte lawyer, is listed as approving the campaign's financial disclosure reports, the most recent of which was filed Jan. 31. The required reports are filed electronically to the FEC and do not require a hand-written signature.

Chambers told The Associated Press he hasn't talked with Edwards or his staff in more than a year and didn't know the campaign was still active. He said he couldn't remember exactly when he last heard from them.

"I don't know what's going on," Chambers said. "I certainly didn't know any reports were being filed with my name."

The AP reported last week that the 2008 primary campaign spent $836,712 on legal fees, staff salaries and other expenses in 2011, despite a $2.1 million debt the FEC says the campaign must repay taxpayers for public matching funds it received after Edwards dropped his run for the White House amid a sex scandal.

Patricia A. Fiori, an attorney handling Edwards' appeal of the FEC's ruling, said Chambers authorized the campaign to use his name when he signed a form to become treasurer in January 2007. Because he never resigned, Fiori said assistant treasurer Lora Haggard can continue to enter Chambers' name on the electronic reports by entering the campaign's identification code.

"It is quite clear that under procedures established by the FEC for electronic filing, the signature of the treasurer is replaced with a password," Fiori said. "Once the assistant treasurer is authorized to receive the password, the assistant treasurer has authority to file committee reports electronically."

Fiori said she doesn't know if Chambers has reviewed any disclosure reports in his five years as treasurer, but she said they would have been made available to him had he ever asked. It was unclear when, if ever, Chambers looked at a report.

After commenting to AP last week, Chambers has not returned several telephone messages.

Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman and lawyer who founded a campaign finance watchdog group, questioned why Haggard did not put her own name to the reports, as is allowed under the regulations.

"If I were the treasurer, I would be understandably livid about that," said Potter, who founded the Campaign Legal Center. "I don't think it is proper for a committee to sign reports in someone's name without them aware that's being done."

Potter said the electronic signature has the same legal weight as a hand-written one, and using someone else's name on the form is the same as signing another person's signature. He said the situation points to a hole in the FEC reporting structure.

"It's a gray area. Before electronic filing, you actually had a treasurer's signature," he said.

The FEC began requiring most federal campaigns to electronically file their finance reports in 2001.

Brett G. Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer with more than 20 years of experience representing clients before the FEC, questioned what the Edwards campaign had done.

"It is not acceptable procedure to electronically sign the treasurer's name to an FEC report without the treasurer reviewing it and agreeing to have their name applied to it, because the treasurer is personally liable for any mistakes or false statements that are made in the report," Kappel said.

On the front page of the FEC disclosure forms is the phrase: "I certify that I have examined this report and to the best of my knowledge and belief it is true, correct and complete." Below that, Chambers' name is typed on the line labeled "Signature of Treasurer."

The FEC form also includes a warning: filing "false, erroneous or incomplete" information could subject the signer to fines or possible prosecution under a federal perjury law.

Campaign finance watchdog groups said it's not unusual for presidential campaigns to remain open and spend money years after the election is over, especially if there is an unresolved audit or unpaid debts, as is the case with Edwards' campaign.

Haggard, who owns the Georgia-based firm H+P Political Compliance, did not return messages seeking comment. She and her business partner were paid a combined $121,000 by the Edwards campaign in 2011 to handle the federal reporting requirements.

FEC spokeswoman Judith Ingram said she could not comment.

Edwards, a Democrat, received more than $12.9 million in federal matching funds, money generated from the $3 box that taxpayers can check on their tax returns. Most of the public money came after he dropped out of the race Jan. 30, 2008.

In a separate criminal case, Edwards was indicted last year on six felony and misdemeanor counts related to campaign finance violations stemming from money paid by wealthy donors to hide his pregnant mistress during the 2008 race. He has pleaded not guilty.

His trial has been delayed because of a serious heart condition that requires treatment.

Fiori said none of the 2011 spending went to Edwards or his criminal defense team. Politicians are barred by law from using campaign funds for personal expenses.

A phone number for the Edwards campaign provided by Fiori has rang busy for the last week, even at midnight. The Chapel Hill street address listed with the number was for office space vacated more three years ago.

Chambers said last week had been trying to reach Edwards' staff for days, but that he didn't have a current number.

"I thought all that was over," said Chambers. "I want to talk with the parties responsible."

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Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck