This spring, after receiving a number of federal warnings about a series of accounting errors, the campaign committee for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) embarked on a financial reckoning.
As a result of that reckoning, the campaign has now had to correct a slew of reports, and two of Nunes’ affiliated committees removed his treasurer—his mom—as their government contact.
But over the last few months, Nunes’ mother, Toni Nunes, has filed a confounding series of financial disclosures. The reports attempt to correct an array of accounting errors and oversights, some dating back to 2004, and because the errors carry over from one accounting period to the next, all subsequent filings were also incorrect—meaning the California Republican’s books have been off for 17 years.
But even after the embarrassing cascade of notices that inundated the campaign over the last year, Nunes’ mom has continued filing and signing reports herself. One of the corrected reports she filed this month—itself a correction of a correction—was flagged for additional errors a few days after she submitted it.
The filings reveal several inconsistencies, most glaringly that over the years a number of people and entities have apparently not cashed checks from the Nunes campaign. (At least two of the donors died, one of them passing away this August without cashing the $2,700 refund first issued in 2018.) This month, the campaign reported it had disgorged tens of thousands of dollars in uncashed refund checks to the U.S. Treasury. In another report it clawed back uncashed payments for goods and services—such as $2,700 in tickets to an unknown event the campaign apparently attempted to purchase from Bank of America in 2008. The oversights total nearly $40,000 in aggregate.
Caleb Burns, campaign finance specialist and partner at Wiley Rein, told The Daily Beast that generally it isn’t unusual for at least some refund checks to go uncashed.
“For example, if a donor sends a check to a campaign in an amount that exceeds the contribution limit, the campaign must refund the excessive amount. However, if the contributor cannot be located or the refund check is never cashed by the contributor, the campaign must disgorge the funds to the U.S. Treasury,” Burns said.
The difference with Nunes is not only the amount of refunds, but the lapsed time. For instance, one of Donald Trump’s lawyers, John Dowd, never banked the $3,700 that the Trump campaign refunded him in 2018. However, it took the Trump operation less than a year to square it away. The Nunes campaign, on the other hand, failed to account for uncashed payments over several years. And some of its voided refunds even come with a clarifying note: “Not in violation.”
“It is impossible to tell from Congressman Nunes’s mangled FEC reports what happened more than a decade ago.”
— Jenna Grande, press secretary for campaign finance watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington
Beyond the refunds, the campaign also says it made donations that were apparently never cashed. Two came in 2004: a $1,000 transfer to the campaign for the former Republican governor of Missouri Matt Blunt, and a $5,000 gift to the Texas Republican Party, known at the time as “Texas Victory 2004.” Another uncashed gift—$2,500 to the American Principles Institute in October 2018—was intended for a non-profit event, and had been misreported to begin with.
Neither Nunes’ campaign nor his mother responded to a request for comment.
Adav Noti, legal director at the Campaign Legal Center, said that while the disgorgements fit Burns’ scenario, some of the other errors stand out.
“It looks like most of those disgorgements relate to prior contribution refunds, so presumably there was something wrong with those contributions that caused the campaign to cut the refunds initially and prohibits them from keeping the money now,” Noti said. However, he added that uncashed payments on the vendor side “would mean the campaign got the vendor’s service for free, so that’s impermissible too.”
Two such instances appear involving regular Nunes vendors. One is a $2,636 payment made last September to Bryant Digital Media for “materials,” and the other is an uncashed $7,556.89 check from more than three years ago, originally for “yard signs.”
Another instance, however, is thornier.
The campaign’s second quarter report for 2021 shows a voided $2,700 check made out to Bank of America in March 2008.
The $2,700 was for “tickets,” and while it’s unclear what the tickets were for—or if they were ever exchanged or used—Bank of America appears to have never cashed the check. That meant the Nunes’ campaign had $2,700 in extra money in its campaign account that went unaccounted for—for more than a decade.
Now, 13 years later, Nunes has reversed the payment for the tickets, reclaiming the money on his balance sheet.
Jenna Grande, press secretary for campaign finance watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the mistakes are so widespread and longstanding that it’s difficult now to understand exactly what happened.
“It is impossible to tell from Congressman Nunes’s mangled FEC reports what happened more than a decade ago,” Grande said.
“It remains very concerning that these uncashed checks go as far back as 17 years ago, and what that could mean for the accuracy of the FEC reports filed by Rep. Nunes for almost two decades,” she added.
“For your information and consideration when preparing future filings, only transactions with an actual monetary value should be itemized on your report.”
— Federal Election Commission notice
As for just how “mangled” these reports are, Grande pointed to a 2013 FEC ruling against Trial Lawyers PAC, which was hit with a $27,000 fine for filing fundamentally inaccurate disclosures for at least 16 years.
Last year, the FEC flagged material errors in all but one of the campaign reports filed by Nunes’ mom. In total, the agency sent half a dozen notices apiece to the campaign and the Nunes Victory Fund, and some of the corrections themselves drew second notices. Two years earlier, the feds sent the campaign eight RFAIs.
The campaign has had to pay a price. Earlier this year, the campaign shelled out thousands for a campaign finance legal firm, and over the summer it paid the FEC $475 for a “convention” fee. Campaign finance experts interpreted that as likely being the cost of a training seminar—a common government requirement for treasurers who have made routine violations.
But just last week, Nunes’ leadership PAC—“NEW PAC”—received two more alerts, citing a multitude of errors. Some were trivial, such as a reported transaction for $0.00.
“For your information and consideration when preparing future filings, only transactions with an actual monetary value should be itemized on your report,” the notice said.
In 2019, Nunes, a voracious litigant, cited his mom in two lawsuits. One was a $77.5 million civil action filed in an Iowa district court charging Esquire and journalist Ryan Lizza with defamation for a report that suggested the Nunes clan had tried to hide the use of undocumented labor at their Iowa dairy farm. A judge tossed the lawsuit the next year.
A separate $250 million defamation suit filed that same year in Henrico County, VA, targeted an array of defendants, including an anonymous parody Twitter account called @DevinNunesMom, who according to the complaint “falsely impersonated Nunes’ mother, and created and maintained an account on Twitter (@DevinNunesMom) for the sole purpose of attacking, defaming, disparaging and demeaning Nunes.”
The complaint cited tweets calling Nunes a “Putin shill” and a “treasonous shitbag,” and demanded the court unveil the human entity behind the parody account. A judge tossed the lawsuit this summer.