Guest Opinion: Evan McMullin should not use campaign funds to pay past debts

There have been rumblings lately that Evan McMullin could use funds from his senate campaign against Mike Lee to pay debts from his failed presidential campaign. Although it’s difficult to ascertain McMullin’s motives, the law would allow him to transfer any excess funds from his senate run to pay his past campaign debts. He must publicly vow not to do so. 

While running for president in 2016, Evan McMullin amassed nearly $670,000 in debt. He failed to pay a variety of vendors, including a Utah-based signature-gathering firm, which “solicited signatures to get McMullin on the ballot in five states.” The owner of that business stated that McMullin’s team “told me they cannot pay us what they owe” and he complained of the financial “sting” that caused his company. McMullin’s most prominent debt is $500,000 to a Florida law firm that helped during his presidential run. 

At the time, McMullin’s campaign vowed that “[w]e are working hard to do what we can within the law to retire as much debt as possible.” But a recent FEC filing shows he still owes the debt. In fact, it’s not clear he’s paid any of the amount he incurred over five years ago. 

This unpaid debt is troubling in and of itself. But his current senate campaign raises the possibility that he could use the funds he raises to pay those debts. It would seem as though the law would not allow a candidate to do this: raise money for one campaign to pay the debts of a previous campaign. But it does. 

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) considered an almost identical scenario 35 years ago. In 1984, John Glenn, the astronaut and US senator, unsuccessfully ran for president. During that campaign, he amassed “approximately $3 million in debt.” Two years later, he ran for reelection as the US senator from Ohio. During that senate campaign, Glenn amassed “$800,000 in excess funds.”  Glenn wrote to the FEC to determine whether it would be proper for him to transfer that excess amount to pay the debts from his presidential run. 

In response, the FEC wrote an “Advisory Opinion” that explains that Glenn could use his excess senate funds for “any lawful purpose.” The opinion concludes that Glenn’s senate campaign “may transfer. . . the excess funds of approximately $800,000” to his presidential campaign to pay those debts. Swapping funds to previous campaigns has been common practice ever since.

Evan McMullin has raised over $1,000,000 in the first three months of his campaign. And he continues to aggressively seek donations. If he does not spend all of that money on his current run against Mike Lee, he could transfer the funds to his presidential campaign to pay the debts he owes. 

Surely, people are not giving money to McMullin so he can pay for the profligate spending of his last failed campaign. They are donating because they think McMullin has a chance to unseat Mike Lee as Utah’s senator. Donors and Utah residents need assurances from McMullin that he will not use his senate funds to pay his previous campaign debts. Until then, people who want to support a candidate against Mike Lee should look to other principled options.

Kimball Dean Parker is the CEO of SixFifty