September 23, 2014

campaign finance

This Accountant Keeps Candidates Squeaky Clean

Nancy Watkins is the GOP's go-to accountant.

Amy Keller | 9/1/2009

When sloppy record-keeping triggered a federal audit of Mel Martinez’s 2004 Senate campaign several years ago, the freshman Republican lawmaker blamed the accounting errors on the volume of donations he’d received. His campaign staff, he explained, had simply been "overwhelmed" by the $12 million it raised and spent over a 10-month period. As a result, his disclosures were "not at the level it needed to be."

Nancy Watkins
Nancy Watkins? [Photo: Mark Wemple]

To straighten out the mess, he turned to Nancy Watkins, a no-nonsense, Tampa-based CPA who has specialized in campaign accounting for more than 25 years.

The 54-year-old Florida native is a key behind-the-scenes player in Republican politics, serving as the treasurer for dozens of candidates and political groups throughout the state and across the nation. Crunching numbers and depositing checks is the easy part. Treasurers of a modern-day political campaign must grasp the intricacies of federal and state election laws and develop a strategy for complying with the regulations. Precision and thoroughness is essential — the consequences of slip-ups range from public embarrassment to expensive fines or even jail time.

In a U.S. senatorial campaign, for instance, the treasurer must make sure that individual contributions flowing into the campaign don’t come from a prohibited source (such as a foreign national) and that they do not exceed the federal contribution limit of $2,400 per election. Each contribution must be properly disclosed, with the name, address, occupation or employer of the contributor, and date and amount of their contribution. Every quarter, the treasurer must file a lengthy disclosure report that summarizes total spending, total receipts, cash on hand and any debt and lists every contribution and expenditure the campaign has received and made.

As Election Day approaches, the requirements become more onerous. Any contribution of $1,000 or more received within 20 days of the election must be disclosed within 48 hours of receipt. Watkins likens it to operating a decent-sized business at warp speed: "These are multimillion-dollar businesses that start up in a very short window. U.S. Senate races go from zero to $25 million in a year and a half. We know how to run a $25-million business, so we bring that expertise to them."

Early test

Watkins chanced into the field, she says, in the late 1980s, when then-Rep. Connie Mack hired the accounting firm that she and her husband had formed in 1980 to handle the books for his non-profit foundation. Happy with the firm’s work, Mack hired Watkins to handle the accounting for his 1988 Republican Senate bid. Because the nation’s campaign finance system — a regulatory framework that Congress created in response to the Watergate scandal and other campaign finance abuses in the 1972 elections — was still in its relative infancy, compliance software was either unavailable or inadequate, says Watkins. So she designed her own, using standard database and word processing programs. The complex laws themselves didn’t intimidate her, Watkins says. The statute, in fact, seemed downright skimpy when compared to the thousands of pages of tax code she was used to dealing with.

Mack’s hiring of a local accounting firm set off alarm bells in Washington, and a team from the National Republican Senatorial Committee quickly descended on Tampa to "see if we had any clue as to what we were doing," Watkins’ husband, Robert, recalls with a chuckle.

The accountants passed the unofficial review, and as word of their practice spread, a bustling political accounting practice was born. "We never advertised. We never solicit. Unfortunately, for every 10 that approach us, we can only accept one because there is only so much of us to spread so thin," says Watkins, who took the lead of the firm’s political operations while her husband, also a CPA, concentrates more on providing professional accounting, tax, management and consulting services to more traditional business clients and individuals.

Tags: Politics & Law, Banking & Finance, Government/Politics & Law

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