The Loser Wins

How Bob Dornan turned political defeat into a financial windfall for his family

Courtesy of Union HispanaDefeated Orange County Congressman Bob Dornan cost taxpayers an estimated $4 million trying to prove that "thousands" of Latino voters conspired illegally to unseat him in 1996.Dornan failed in that effort, but on Aug. 5, "fiscally conservative" congressional Republicans overrode Democratic objections and voted to give Dornan $320,000 in public funds to help cover the ex-congressman's political-witch-hunt expenses. The move-embarrassing even by cheesy Newt Gingrich standards-is a bastardization of the more just "loser pays" rule. In this case, the loser-Dornan-wins.While news of Dornan's taxpayer-funded windfall was amply reported by the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register, the daily press overlooked or ignored the story's most outrageous angle.Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show that while Dornan lobbied his former House colleagues for financial assistance, he funneled at least $140,000 in campaign funds to four of his five adult children. That number includes the more than $9,900 Dornan paid his children for unspecified expenses. Since December 1996-when taxpayers began incurring costs in Dornan's effort to void Loretta Sanchez's victory -his daughter Theresa, of Virginia, pocketed $90,500; his son Mark, of Los Angeles (who replaced Sallie Dornan, Bob's wife, as official campaign manager), collected $24,500; his daughter Kathleen, of Los Angeles (who is listed under three different names on Dornan's disclosure reports), reaped $10,600; and his daughter Robin, of San Juan Capistrano, took $4,500.Why the nine-term ex-congressman -who often brags that no politician is more campaign-savvy than he-needed more than $130,000 worth of election advice from his children during the past 18 months is a mystery. Based on the size and duration of the payments, the four Dornan kids must be essential "consultants" to the campaign committee. In FEC records, Dornan also used generic, nondescriptive "fees," "fund-raising" and "security" as other reasons he gave campaign money to his children.Efforts to determine the exact nature of the payments were unsuccessful. Calls to Dornan's campaign headquarters in Garden Grove went unreturned. In one case-on Aug. 18-Sallie Dornan answered the telephone. She said her husband was standing nearby; he refused to come to the phone and answer the Weekly's questions.It would be grossly illegal under federal law, of course, if Dornan converted campaign funds to personal use. Therefore, it goes without saying that the children surely earned all of the money. Not everyone is convinced all is above-board. On June 23, the FEC sent Dornan a formal notice rebuking at least a portion of the payments. "Your report contains disbursements that appear to be personal use of campaign funds," wrote the Washington, D.C.-based independent executive agency charged with enforcing federal campaign-finance laws. "The committee should seek reimbursement for the full amount of the personal-use violations from the beneficiary and notify the commission in writing of such a reimbursement." Specifically, the FEC challenged the validity of $4,000-per-month payments to Mark Dornan and reminded the campaign that converting campaign funds to personal use is against federal law. (In July, the agency also reprimanded Dornan for failing to adequately disclose details of his campaign's debts.)Sending a formal letter can be the commission's first step in initiating an investigation into whether election fraud occurred. By law, the FEC cannot comment specifically on any ongoing probe. When the agency finds wrongdoing, it publicizes its findings and negotiates civil penalties of up to $10,000 or 200 percent of the amount of the violation, which-in this case-could be $280,000. If an FEC investigation uncovers intentional, widespread corruption by a candidate, contributor or political committee, the agency can refer the matter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for criminal prosecution. The Internal Revenue Service also does not look favorably on politicians avoiding tax liability by using their campaign kitties as personal treasuries.Dornan took the FEC's letter seriously, apparently hoping to thwart any possible investigation in its early stages. On June 30-immediately after getting the agency's notice-he responded in writing. "The payments were, in fact, for bona fide services to the campaign" as defined in federal election law, Dornan wrote. The ex-congressman assured the FEC that $4,000 per month was the "fair market value" for his son's services. "I trust this provides sufficient clarification of these disbursements," concluded Dornan. The ex-congressman, however, failed to provide any evidence that his son-who routinely shouts, "You da man, dad," at public events-could garner $4,000 per month (plus expenses) on the open market. So far, the FEC has not publicly questioned the more than $105,000-plus expenses-in campaign payments to Dornan's three other children. The possible oversight appears to be attributed to the fact that in disclosure reports, Dornan listed his daughters under their married names, names that obscure the family connections. While Dornan was cutting checks for his children, he was simultaneously lobbying his former colleagues on Capitol Hill for financial aid. After 18 months, four local, state and federal investigations failed to prove even a single case of voter fraud in the bitter ex-congressman's self-serving imaginary scandal. Total cost to taxpayers: an estimated $4 million. None of the colleges, community centers, churches, nonprofit organizations or individuals who were falsely accused in the conspiracy-including yours truly and this publication-will ever be reimbursed for wasted time and large legal bills. In a just world, Dornan would be forced to apologize and reimburse the public's full costs. It's not as if Dornan-who has spent as much as $45 per vote in previous races-couldn't afford to pay his own bill. In addition to a generous congressional pension and a tidy personal fortune collected while in office, the nine-term congressman still rakes in more than $120,000 per month-every month-in direct-mail contributions from barely coherent elderly citizens, homophobes, and other assorted ultraright-wingers. If he were a decent human being, Dornan would have declined the House of Representatives' most recent raid on the U.S. Treasury by using a mere two and a half months of funds from his lucrative Virginia-based direct-mail operation. Decency and Dornan, however, don't mix. In a July 28 letter to his contributors, Dornan wrote that "My campaign, Dornan for Congress, needs your urgent, generous support within the next five days. . . . I must raise serious funds now or, quite frankly, Sanchez's bank account will overwhelm and drown out my message of truth. I badly need your [financial] help right now. I can't say it any clearer than that. Please use the certified-mail reply envelope so that your generous support gets top-priority handling by the post office. God bless you and your loved ones, and may God bless and protect our free and just U.S. of A." Five days later, Dornan mailed another nationwide solicitation. In the fund-raising appeal, he wildly accused Sanchez ("a fraud, a criminal" and "damaged goods") of committing adultery; then he blasted her for "new lows in gutter campaign attacks." He followed that up by seeking contributions. "I need maximum-support donations right now from good folks like you," he wrote. "I humbly ask you to consider sending money as soon as you can."In a third undated letter sent at about the same time as the other two solicitations, Dornan blasted homosexuals (a theme in every letter), claimed he is the victim of a "vast conspiracy," and then wrote: "I expect Sanchez's hateful, venomous and untrue mailings to start hitting mailboxes in the final weeks leading up to Election Day. My friend, I do not like having to bother you [by] talking about raising funds, but in this case, it is absolutely necessary. . . . Rush your most generous donation."He closed the letter with an emotional quote from 2 Corinthians. Nowhere did Dornan tell his financial supporters that four of his five children were living off their political contributions. Politics has been lucrative for Dornan. He was a failed Los Angeles actor who could only afford to rent when he first went to Congress in 1977. Twenty-one years later, the raspy-voiced politician keeps a lower-middle-class house in Garden Grove to comfort local voters, but he quietly lives among millionaires on a posh 5-acre Virginia estate called "Donegal Hill." Dornan may be keenly aware that several former members of Congress lost close races due to questions surrounding illegal, unethical or simply embarrassing uses of campaign funds. In one case, a candidate used campaign contributions to pay his mortgage and home grocery bills; in another, a congressman used the funds to pay his wife's regular hairdresser bills. During his 18 years in Congress, Dornan personally ran up large-arguably wasteful-government bills. House records show he was never shy about taking trips around the world-sometimes to exotic locations-at the public's expense. His late-night solo tirades on the House floor may have entertained or confused C-SPAN viewers across the country, but they cost taxpayers thousands of dollars per hour by keeping congressional administrators at their posts after-hours.In December 1996-after losing to Sanchez but before she was sworn-in-Dornan used his fading power to demand a military-jet ride. The Pentagon ordered two El Toro-based F-18 military jets to give the lame-duck congressman (who avoided Korean War combat by enrolling in Los Angeles acting classes) a personal, hourlong joy ride-complete with simulated bombing attacks-over the California desert. Cost to taxpayers: $8,000. Dornan's free spending isn't limited to public funds. The man who once entertained visions of one day occupying the White House also doesn't mind dipping into campaign funds for extravagant spending. During his laughable 1996 quest to win the Republican presidential nomination, Dornan checked into New York's Waldorf-Astoria for the night at a cost of $3,638. At the time of the hotel stay, the Orange County Republican was trying to qualify for federal matching funds, a program that would have effectively paid a large portion of Dornan's presidential-campaign bills. He was never able to garner enough nationwide support to qualify for the program.See the hard-copy version of this week's OC Weekly for a full list of payments by the Dornan for Congress campaign to the Dornan children.

 
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