Republican Burgess Owens may have to refund thousands of dollars in campaign donations

(Kristin Murphy/ Deseret News, via AP, Pool) 4th Congressional District Republican candidate Burgess Owens speaks during an Utah Debate Commission debate against Democratic Utah Congressman Ben McAdams on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

Burgess Owens, the GOP nominee in Utah’s 4th Congressional District, appears to be at the center of a campaign finance controversy with a week to go until Election Day.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Owens' campaign accepted more than $135,000 in illegal campaign contributions, which is approximately 40% of the money he has available for the stretch run to the election.

A review of Owens' campaign finance filing confirms multiple donations over the legal limit stretching as far back as July 1 of this year. Among the prominent Utahns who have donated more than the legal limit include Greg Miller and Susan Bramble, spouse of a well-known state lawmaker.

All of the donations in question have a notation on the report that the amounts are not permitted and that the campaign is waiting for written directions from the donors about what to do with the cash.

Federal Election Commission rules allow donors to reallocate excessive amounts to another member of the household, or to another election, so long as that person is not also over the limit. The other option is a refund.

“With 50,000 donors donating online over the course [of the campaign], there’s going to be some that donate over and you either reattribute it, you send out reattribution letters and if not you refund it. That’s why the FEC has those processes in place; the candidates can’t control that,” said Owens campaign spokesperson Jesse Ranney in an email statement.

It’s not clear from campaign filings whether the campaign has indeed remedied the disputed donations. If they do, it will likely be detailed in a supplemental report.

While the issue is sorted out, Owens could be facing a cash crunch in the final days of the contest as FEC rules say campaigns have to hold on to these donations until they are either reallocated or refunded. Owens had about $325,000 on hand according to his pre-general election filing, which may include the money at the center of the controversy.

The McAdams campaign pounced on the news in an email statement, calling for the Owens camp to divest itself of the campaign cash.

“It’s clear he has taken illegal donations that he cannot spend. He should come clean and refund all the money he is holding illegally," said campaign manager Andrew Roberts.

Even if Owens is able to fix the issue, it has not been done in a timely manner. FEC rules give campaigns 60 days for the reallocation or a refund. Many of the donations that are under scrutiny are outside of that window. The most likely punishment for that transgression is a fine.

Individual donors are limited to $2,800 for each election cycle. Since Owens had to win the GOP nomination in a primary election, a single person could give $2,800 for the primary, then another $2,800 for the general election.

This current campaign cash controversy may spawn memories of a similar dispute that enveloped Mia Love’s reelection bid two years ago. Love’s campaign improperly raised more than a million dollars for a primary election that year even though she knew she would not face a primary challenge. After weeks of controversy, Love’s campaign redesignated less than half of that money from the primary to the general election and refunded about $10,000. A complaint with the FEC for Love’s deceptive fundraising practices is still pending.

The race between Owens and Democrat Ben McAdams is one of the tightest in the country. Owens raised an astonishing $2.5 million in the July-September fundraising period to erase a massive cash gap with McAdams. Between the candidates and outside groups, more than $19 million has poured into the race in which the statistic analysis website FiveThirtyEight gives McAdams a 56 in 100 chance of winning.

The most recent survey of the contest gave Owens a one-point lead over McAdams, but that was well within the margin of error, meaning the race is essentially tied.