GOP fear: Steele spending spree could cripple convention

Besides the obvious reasons for opposing extravagant spending and rampant cronyism, key Republican operatives also fear that the current spending spree by Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele’s former personal assistant, Belinda Cook, could debilitate the party’s nominating convention.

The reason is the spending, much of which is for eyebrow-raising salaries and rent on a waterfront mansion, will come out of a limited pot of federal funds that are crucial for running the convention.

Cook is using the federal funds for activities that could be funded by corporate “soft” money, like rent on the waterfront mansion.

Each party’s nominating conventions are funded by separate streams of money that serve different purposes. At the heart of the operation is about $17 million in federal funds that are available for almost any purpose related to putting on the convention.

Alongside that money, parties use “host committees” that can raise soft money to fund convention-related expenses.

Typically, parties use the plentiful soft money for everything they are permitted to and use the federal funds for the other, restricted purposes.

“The fear is that there’s a fixed pot of money for critical parts of the convention. Once you spend it, it’s gone,” said a GOP operative who has worked on previous conventions. “You could end up not having enough money to run the program.”

“Our chance to take back the White House in 2012 is on the line,” said Solomon Yue, a member of the RNC’s Executive Committee who is pushing for a special committee session to investigate the spending.

“How we’re going to pay for our nominating convention is on the line,” Yue said.

One example of the Federal Election Commission’s byzantine rules that govern convention spending is balloons. Soft money can pay for a balloon that is affixed to the wall or otherwise used as “decor,” but a balloon drop from the ceiling must be paid for with federal funds.

“In exchange for receiving public funds, a party’s convention committee must agree not to raise or spend additional funds,” a report from the Congressional Research Service says, referring to the sphere of activities which can only be funded by the federal dollars.

Critics say that despite Cook’s lack of experience, she has excluded the numerous convention experts from advising her or working on the 2012 convention.

Cook “told me she had never even been to a convention before” said the GOP operative quoted above.

Neither Cook nor Doug Heye, a spokesman for Steele, returned calls for comment.

A response to critics from Cook, Louis Pope, the convention’s treasurer, and Holly Hughes, the chairwoman of the Tampa Host Committee, sent to RNC members is not assuaging critics.

“How do you even offer that [response] with a straight face?” asked David Norcross, who chaired the party’s convention committee in the 2004 cycle, noting that, among other things, the response listed spending in 2007 over 10 months to spending in 2010 over five months as an “apples to apples” way to compare it.

“What did you spend the money on?” asked Norcross.

Norcross downplayed the impact of the limits on the soft money as opposed to the federal dollars, but did say Cook’s spending could significantly hurt the convention in other ways. “Any money wasted has to be made up by the RNC or the host committee,” Norcross said.

“Steele’s mismanagement has made it tougher for the host committee to raise money,” Norcross said.