Specter offers to return donations

By Derrick Nunnally
Inquirer Staff Writer
Posted on Thu, Apr. 30, 2009

Tucked away in Sen. Arlen Specter's party-change announcement Tuesday was an 11-word sentence that could cost the newly minted Democrat more than $1 million: a promise to return recent campaign donations "upon request."

Although federal campaign-finance law does not require Specter to refund anything, experts and recent political history indicated that Specter had shown good form by making the offer.

"It's right and appropriate that politicians offer the option of at least returning the contributions should the donor request it," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. "It would be kind of going above and beyond to, just as a rule, return everything. Not everyone will expect - or even want - that."

The most recent federal records show that Specter collected $1.28 million in contributions during the first three months of this year, despite attracting immense partisan heat as a Republican who voted for President Obama's economic-stimulus package.

The individual donors who contributed $850,000 of that money to a Republican campaign did not form a stampede to demand refunds when Specter switched sides.

"I have not been called," his campaign treasurer, Stephen J. Harmelin, said yesterday afternoon.

Harmelin, whose long record of political activity dates to his service as an aide under President Lyndon Johnson, said Specter's move had even him doing research.

"I'm just looking into the applicable rules and ethics to make sure that the senator does what's appropriate," Harmelin said.

There are few formal guidelines for this sort of thing, but the last senator in this situation took a slightly less generous path and profited from it.

In 2001, after Jim Jeffords of Vermont dropped out of the Republican caucus and became an independent, he refunded money to individual contributors from his home state only - not "out-of-state donors, political action committees or the Republican Party," the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press reported. The result: Jeffords refunded about $21,000 to 64 Vermont residents - and collected $58,000 in donations after the switch, mostly from out of state.

Neither Jeffords, who has since retired, nor his campaign treasurer could be reached for comment. Specter's campaign spokesman, Christopher Nicholas, did not return a call.

Robert Edgar, a former Pennsylvania Democratic member of the U.S. House and a onetime Specter opponent who heads the watchdog group Common Cause, said he believed Specter's decision to refund on request was the right call. Edgar predicted "a very small percentage" of Specter donors would ask for their checks back.

"A lot of those people were supporting Arlen because they wanted him to be moderate," Edgar said. "Most of the people who really hated Arlen gave their money to" Pat Toomey, the Republican primary candidate.

But on Tuesday, some people found themselves suddenly having reasons to loathe Specter.

One was Chris Hackett, owner of SHS TechStaffing in Wilkes-Barre, who called the senator "Benedict Arlen" yesterday. Hackett, a Republican candidate for the House last fall, said he was asking for the refund of the $4,800 that he has donated Specter this year despite their many policy disagreements.

"We were able to agree on one very important piece of political business," Hackett said ruefully, "and that was that having massive Democratic control of the House, Senate, and White House was bad for our country. For him to switch parties and do this is, at a minimum, unfortunate."

On the opposite end of the spectrum among Specter's dozens of other high-dollar donors was Peter Licari of Ambler, president and chief executive officer of Complete Healthcare Resources. He said Specter the Democrat was welcome to keep the $2,400 that Licari contributed to Specter the Republican in March.

"I support Arlen Specter, not the party," Licari said. "My interest is health care, so what their position is on health care and what affects health care is important, and the party is not."