WASHINGTON -- The Federal Election Commission on Thursday decided to scale back the amounts that auditors had recommended the 2000 presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Al Gore repay the government.
Also, while reviewing presidential campaign audits, the commission said former candidate Pat Buchanan could use taxpayer dollars to award $70,000 in bonuses to his campaign staff, including $20,000 to his sister.
The FEC made the ruling as part of the commission's 5-1 vote to approve an audit of Buchanan's publicly financed 2000 presidential campaign. The audit required that Buchanan reimburse the government for $68,033 for minor spending irregularities.
Under FEC rules, campaigns can pay bonuses if they are part of a pre-election contract. New Commissioner Ellen Weintraub opposed the bonuses because she said no such contract existed. But the other commissioners said a pre-election memo from Buchanan outlining proposed bonuses was sufficient.
The FEC also approved audits of the Bush and Gore campaigns.
The commission directed the Bush campaign to repay $224,518, far less than the $723,176 sought by auditors. The FEC failed to achieve the four votes needed to accept or reject the auditors' call for reimbursement of $498,658 in costs for phone banks operated by several state parties, so it excluded that from the repayment amount.
The commission directed Gore's primary campaign to repay $137,894, reducing the $372,245 sought by auditors.
It allowed the campaign to count more costs as primary, rather than general, election expenses.
The FEC also ordered Gore's general election campaign to repay $3,262.
The campaigns were audited because they received federal matching funds.
Gore took public financing for both his primary and general election campaigns. Bush accepted it only for the general election campaign. Each received $67.5 million in taxpayer money for the general election.
The FEC agreed with auditors that taxpayers should pay $382,996 to reimburse the privately financed Bush recount fund for some staff salaries and overhead. The auditors said those expenses were unrelated to the recount effort and should be treated as postelection costs covered by the campaign.
Bush campaign attorney Ben Ginsberg said the commission's action on the audit overall was reasonable, but added that the campaign may challenge the recount-related finding. The staffers were working on the 2000 recount rather than winding down the campaign, he said.
"Taxpayers should not have to pay for it," Ginsberg said.
In other action, the commission:
--Agreed to hold a hearing in February on whether federal officeholders should be able to continue operating political action committees under the new campaign finance law.
Members of both parties -- including House and Senate leaders, potential presidential candidates and increasingly, rank-and-file members of Congress -- have started such committees, typically known as "leadership PACs."
The FEC plans a broad look at such PACs, including whether members of Congress can continue applying separate federal contribution limits to their PACs and their campaign committees.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a lead sponsor of the law and a 2000 presidential candidate, told the commission in a letter that he does not believe lawmakers can continue to have such PACs. He said he plans to disband his Straight Talk America PAC as he considers whether to seek re-election in 2004.
--Elected Weintraub, a Democratic election lawyer, to serve as vice-chairwoman. Though the meeting was Weintraub's first as a commissioner, she took the No. 2 job because it and the chairmanship rotate among the commissioners. The commission consists of three Republicans and three Democrats.
--Approved reporting requirements for candidates and other political players under the new law.