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C. Eugene Emery Jr.
By C. Eugene Emery Jr. May 20, 2012

R.I. congressional candidate John Matson says U.S. Rep. James Langevin is still paying off debt from his 1994 campaign for secretary of state

Political campaigns cost a lot of money. But is Rep. James Langevin, who has been a congressman since 2001, really still trying to pay off debt from campaigns for his previous job, Rhode Island secretary of state?

That’s what John O. Matson, who is running against Langevin in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary, contended during the April 26 taping of "State of the State," a public access television program that aired May 5 and 6.

"Jimmy Langevin is having a fundraiser on the 3rd to retire the debt from his campaign for secretary of state, which was 12 years ago. How can anybody not pay his debts from 12 years ago? Because the Ethics Committee has no power," Matson said. "They need to be in power to make people pay up, you know, when they do something wrong. Here we are 12 years later. I got the invitation today. He's holding it to retire the debt from his secretary of state's run. Now, why wasn't it paid? The Ethics Commission would take care of that."

We're not sure why the Ethics Commission -- which has nothing to do with campaign financing -- could resolve that issue. But we were curious whether a six-term congressman is still paying off debts for campaigns he ran when Bill Clinton was president, Regis was with Kathie Lee, and America Online was the big dog of the Internet.

When we called Matson, he sent us a copy of the invitation for "a reception in honor of Congressman Jim Langevin to retire debt from his Secretary of State Campaign." (Matson got the date wrong. It was April 30 at Luigi's Restaurant in Johnston.)

We called Langevin's office, where spokesman Jonathon Dworkin confirmed that the congressman is still raising money to cover his secretary of state campaign.

Here's why.

When he first ran for secretary of state, in 1994, Langevin loaned his campaign $280,000. Candidates commonly loan money to their campaigns. He held the office until 2000, when he was elected to Congress.

In 2006, Langevin decided to recover his money. He asked some of his congressional colleagues to donate. They did, over five years, giving a total of $63,500.

The congressman had a 2006 letter from the Rhode Island Board of Elections' chief auditor at the time, Henry Johnson, saying such contributions were legal.

But the board itself, when it learned in 2011 how the contributions were being handled, said Johnson wasn't authorized to make that determination and, more importantly, Johnson was wrong. Rhode Island law says that only campaign committees legally recognized in Rhode Island can make contributions to a Rhode Island candidate.

Later that year, Langevin agreed to  pay the board $127,000 -- forfeiting the $63,500 and paying a penalty in the same amount of $63,500. It was the largest judgment in the board’s history.

Richard Thornton, director of campaign finance at the Rhode Island Board of Elections, said that as of the end of March, Langevin's state campaign fund still owes Langevin $107,600.

As for the $127,000, Langevin has been paying it off in installments, Thornton said. Currently, $47,625 remains and payments of $15,875 are due on June 30, Sept. 30 and Dec. 31. The money must come from Langevin personally, not his campaign.

Finally, it should be noted, to avoid confusion, that this fundraising is separate from the fundraising Langevin is doing to get reelected to Congress. His most recent federal report shows that he raised $609,000 during the current election cycle and his campaign had $276,251 cash on hand.

Our ruling

Congressional candidate John O. Matson said Rep. James Langevin is still trying to raise money to cover the costs of the campaign he ran for secretary of state 12 years ago.

That statement, by itself, makes Langevin sound like a deadbeat, especially when Matson refers to "debts," which suggests that more than one person is owed money. In fact, the money Langevin’s campaign owes is not to other people, but to one individual -- Langevin himself. Eighteen years ago, the candidate loaned $280,000 to his campaign. In 2006, he tried to get that money back, running afoul of state election laws.

There's a big difference between owing money to others and trying to recoup funds you loaned to your own campaign, especially when Langevin is under no obligation to ever pay himself back in the first place.

So Matson is correct in saying that Langevin is still trying to pay off debt racked up while running for secretary of state, but his statement leaves out important facts that might give voters a very different impression. So we'll give him a Half True.

(Get updates from PolitiFactRI on Twitter. To comment or offer your ruling, visit us on our PolitiFact Rhode Island Facebook page.)

Our Sources

Interview, James Matson, candidate for Congress, May 8, 2012

Interview, Jonathon Dworkin, spokesman, U.S. Rep. James Langevin, May 8, 2012

The Providence Journal, "Langevin fined for violating election law; He will pay $127,000 to state election board after acknowledging his campaign erred," June 18, 2011, accessed May 9, 2012.

Interview, Richard Thornton, director of campaign finance, Rhode Island Board of Elections, May 14, 2012, "Federal Election Commission," accessed May 9, 2012

Interviews and e-mail, Richard Thornton, director of campaign finance, Rhode Island Board of Elections, May 15 and 18, 2012

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R.I. congressional candidate John Matson says U.S. Rep. James Langevin is still paying off debt from his 1994 campaign for secretary of state

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