This past April 14, the Federal Election Commission sent former Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez a letter asking what she'd done with $43,550 that had been donated to her 2018 general-election campaign for U.S. Congress. The FEC was asking, of course, because Rosen Gonzalez didn't actually compete in that year's general election — she lost the Democratic primary to Donna Shalala. Under federal rules, Rosen Gonzalez had 60 days to either return the donations for her general-election campaign or announce a new use for it. At the moment, she has just $17,000 left in her campaign account.
So on May 6 — 22 days after the FEC sent its letter — Rosen Gonzalez found a new reason to keep her campaign account running: She quietly filed to run for Congress once again. But bafflingly, she filed to run in 2028. There are four congressional elections — 2020, 2022, 2024, and 2026 — in the nine years between then and now. It's virtually unheard of for a congressional candidate to file for a House race that far in advance, and the filing raises questions about what Rosen Gonzalez plans to do with the money left in her previous campaign account — $17,237.17 in cash as of April — while she waits nearly a decade for her next federal election season.
Asked about the FEC letter yesterday, Rosen Gonzalez first texted, "I have never received any letter from the FEC." New Times then texted her a picture of the letter in question, which was addressed to her directly.
"As I understand, I am in full compliance with the law," she then responded. "What issue are you trying to raise?" After New Times asked why she filed to run for Congress nine years from now, she stated, "I filed for 2028 because that is when I anticipate Donna Shalala will retire."
Shalala has filed to run for reelection in 2020 alongside two other candidates. Shalala has not, however, filed to run for reelection in 2028, because virtually no one else in America has. There appears to be no strategic benefit to running for Congress five election cycles in advance. But it does give someone a reason to leave a campaign account open.
Federal candidates commonly raise money simultaneously for primary and general elections. But though candidates can raise money early for a potential general-election race, they can't spend any of it until they win their primaries. If candidates lose their primaries, they have roughly two months to either return their general-election money or reassign it to one of a few specific entities.
"If your campaign accepted contributions designated for the general election before the primary, and the candidate will not participate in the general election, then the campaign committee must refund, redesignate, or reattribute the general election contributions within 60 days of the primary or the date that the candidate publicly withdrew from the primary race," the FEC says on its website.
In cases such as this one, the FEC gives candidates a small number of legal ways to redesignate campaign money, including transferring it to a new election. But in those cases, donors need to sign off before candidates reassign money somewhere else. And records of each transaction must be reported to the FEC. (If the FEC says you held onto donations legally, you’re allowed to transfer old, leftover campaign money to a new, upcoming race.)
In its April letter, the FEC warned Rosen Gonzalez that she had not explained what had happened to 27 donations — totaling more than $43,000 — which she was supposed to have returned or redesignated within 60 days of losing her August 2018 primary election.
"The attached general election contributions do not appear to have been remedied," the FEC wrote. "Any subsequent report(s) filed with the Commission must disclose the refund or redesignation of any general election contribution. Refunds or redesignations must be done within 60 days after the 2018 Primary Election. Although the Commission may take further legal action, your prompt action to refund these contributions will be taken into consideration."
The FEC then warned that if she didn’t disclose what happened to the money, the agency might audit or sanction her. According to her latest FEC filings, Rosen Gonzalez raised $427,448.57 in 2018, spent $398,485.45, and refunded two donations totaling $5,400 before the 2018 primary ended. She ended the race with $23,863.12 in cash. (She later returned three other donations totaling $6,400 in 2019.)
Rosen Gonzalez also happens to be running for her old Miami Beach City Commission seat in 2020. Under typical circumstances, Florida law doesn't allow candidates to run for two offices at once. State Statute 99.012, Florida's "resign to run" law, bans candidates from qualifying for more than one local, state, or federal race if the two terms overlap. But Beach commissioners serve only four-year terms — which means that even if Rosen Gonzalez were to win her 2020 race, she'd be out of office again by 2024 and still have four years to go until her congressional election cycle.
(In 2018, Rosen Gonzalez initially refused to resign from her city commission seat after Florida passed a federal resign-to-run law. Instead, she sued the state and claimed the law couldn't be applied retroactively. But a Tallahassee judge ultimately threw the suit out, and she decided to resign in January 2018 to pursue her congressional bid.)
Rosen Gonzalez has also run into donation-related ethics issues in the past. In 2017, emails obtained by New Times showed she tried to prevent Miami Beach Police from arresting one of her campaign donors, gun-range owner Erik Agazim, after he allegedly donned a homemade SWAT-style outfit, strapped a rifle to his back, and used a machete to chop down the fire alarms in his condo building while security cameras filmed the spree. Rosen Gonzalez emailed then-Police Chief Dan Oates, demanded the cops leave Agazim alone, and called Agazim "a meticulous and upstanding businessman." He was eventually charged with 11 felony counts of destroying fire-safety devices, one felony count of criminal mischief, and one misdemeanor count of openly carrying a rifle in public. A resident later filed an ethics complaint against Rosen Gonzalez over the issue. (Agazim's charges were dismissed in 2018 as part of a plea agreement.)
Then, in 2018, the Miami Herald reported that someone had filed another ethics complaint against Rosen Gonzalez after she'd allegedly lobbied city staff on behalf of three campaign donors in violation of the city's ethics code. When the Herald asked about what happened, Rosen Gonzalez admittedly lied to Herald reporter Kyra Gurney.
"I lied about it because I got nervous," Rosen Gonzalez told the newspaper in a follow-up exchange.
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It’s natural to be concerned about what happens to Rosen Gonzalez's leftover campaign money. Losing Florida politicians over the years have found all sorts of ways to continue spending donor cash as part of what critics call "zombie campaigns." In December 2018, the Tampa Bay Times and WTSP-TV News published a joint investigation showing that more than 100 former federal candidates were still spending campaign money years after they lost their elections. The reporters found that the problem persists because FEC rules are often vague and the under-funded agency doesn't have the resources to investigate as many campaigns as it should.
As for Rosen Gonzalez's latest FEC issues, federal records show she refunded the aforementioned three donations totaling $6,400 on March 28, 2019, a few weeks before the FEC filed its letter. All three donations were ultimately named in the FEC's list of flagged contributions.
Rosen Gonzalez didn't say what she plans to do with the remaining $17,000 in her account while she waits about a decade before her next election. Nor did she explain what measures were taken to ensure all $43,550 in flagged donations was properly accounted for.
"I am compliant according to my advisers," she texted. "These were technical accounting issues that were addressed months ago."