BY TOM FIEDLER, Asheville Watchdog
Fancy cigars. Four-figure dinner tabs. Coast-to-coast luxury travel and stays at swanky hotels. Generous gifts to friends, and lucrative payouts to Republican advisors and cronies. Madison Cawthorn’s re-election campaign was rolling in money.
But now, following his defeat in the May 17 Republican primary, the money’s all gone. And federal officials want to know where it went.
In a bluntly worded letter dated Aug. 1 — Cawthorn’s 27th birthday — the Federal Election Commission warned that unless Cawthorn “immediately” submits a report that was due July 15, he faces fines of about $1,000 a day, an audit, or even “legal enforcement action.” The report must detail how he handled more than $3.65 million in campaign contributions, fully listing all his donors and the amounts they gave, and providing a full account of where he spent it.
Cawthorn instead spent his birthday weekend traveling and partying. “One heck of a birthday weekend!,” he wrote on Instagram. “Best friends and the best family. Washington, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida all ensured a very eventful and fun birthday. Back to work now.” He posted videos showing himself dressing up in paramilitary gear and role-playing “force on force training in a shoot house” with friends.
The F.E.C. investigation is the latest in a growing series of personal and professional complications for the young Hendersonville Republican, one among many others that he must deal with before his first and perhaps only congressional term expires on Jan. 3, 2023.
Cawthorn’s was no ordinary political campaign, just as he is no ordinary politician. He rocketed to national fame as a darling of the far right, became a protege of then-President Donald Trump, and a fixture on Fox News programs and fringe cable networks as a trash-talking, verbal grenade-tossing bane of liberals and traditional Republicans.
$3.65 Million Spent, and Then Some
In his bid for reelection, Cawthorn traveled like a celebrity, starring in packed fundraisers. The $3.65 million he had raised — most of it from out of state — was among the highest totals in Congress at the time of the primaries. In fact, he had so much money that he spun off and bankrolled two of his own political-action committees, which he named for himself: the Cawthorn Triumph Committee and the MADISON PAC (an acronym for Making A Difference in Service to our Nation).
These PACs funneled money from Cawthorn’s swelling treasury to fellow House members and favored conservative candidates in North Carolina and beyond, a total of almost $740,000, according to an earlier F.E.C. report.
Attempts to reach the congressman for comment by phone, email, and a visit to his district office were ignored or directed to his current press secretary, Micah Bock. Bock said he could respond only to questions about matters directly related to congressional issues, insisting he had no knowledge of the campaign’s situation.
The report was due July 15 and the fine for failing to file is growing by more than $1,000 each day — money that, according to some reports, Cawthorn doesn’t have. In fact, that daily fine may be adding to an existing pre-primary debt of about $287,000 racked up by overspending his campaign accounts going into the unsuccessful primary, which, despite Trump’s endorsement, he lost to state Sen. Chuck Edwards, another Hendersonville Republican.
In the F.E.C. report filed just before the primary, Cawthorn reported having raised $3,624,029. Yet he had spent $3,655,897, leaving him short by $31,868.
But that didn’t include the money he now owes to donors whose contributions exceeded the legal limit for the primary election. When all the debt is tabulated, Cawthorn was in debt $324,566 to general-election donors, a variety of consultants, campaign equipment providers, and lenders.
Complicating things further for Cawthorn is that on July 15 — the day his missing report was due — he informed the F.E.C. that he was naming himself as his campaign’s treasurer and record keeper, replacing Thomas Datwyler, a Wisconsin-based consultant who advertises himself as “offering Federal Election Commission reporting, compliance, accounting and treasury services.”
Asheville Watchdog asked whether Datwyler quit or was fired, but neither Cawthorn nor Datwyler responded to multiple requests for comment.
Either way, Cawthorn is now the campaign’s treasurer of record. And as of Aug. 9, the report still hasn’t been filed, according to the F.E.C. website.
Up In Smoke
Where did all the money go? Earlier reports showed most went to fundraising consultants who scoured mailing and donor lists for possible contributors. Much of it went to campaign events, including several events staged at gun ranges.
But the campaign also funded meals and perks for Cawthorn’s buddies, many of whom were already drawing salaries as members of his Congressional staff. Re-election campaign donations also paid for nearly daily meals at such Hendersonville eateries as Papas & Beer, Chick-fil-A, and Moe’s Original BBQ.
The Casablanca Tobacconist in downtown Hendersonville sold more than $600 of its products to the campaign. Cawthorn is a cigar aficianado, although the invoice listed “office supplies.”
A frequent visitor to Fox News television studios in New York City and his mentor’s house at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, the candidate traveled in near splendor, booking himself into such top-line hotels as the Waldorf Astoria in New York ($4,058), a Ritz Carlton in Florida, the Fontainebleau on Miami Beach, and many Hiltons and Marriotts.
He also billed the campaign for $633.44 to pay for “gifts” from a Vineyard Vines clothing shop, $3,182 for a dinner at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and $2,083 for an ice cream party at the Simply Natural Creamery in Ayden, N.C., about 350 miles from the boundary of his congressional district.
Notably during these flush times, the campaign settled a debt with one early contributor: Cawthorn himself. Beginning Feb. 1, 2021 — barely a month after Cawthorn was sworn into office and opened a re-election campaign account — and for the next three months, the campaign made six payments to Cawthorn totaling $81,000, thus repaying him in full for his loan to kick off the 2022 re-election effort.
Doling out money to like-minded candidates boosted Cawthorn’s standing within the GOP’s right wing, a former colleague says, and enhanced the candidate’s belief in his invulnerability.
Cawthorn’s fall from the heights has been both spectacular and stunningly quick.
On May 17, Cawthorn lost much more than the Republican nomination to reclaim his seat. Since then, invitations to charm hosts on far-right television have vanished. So have invitations to speak before conservative audiences. He seems figuratively dead to the House clique of extremist firebrands who now appear to exclude him from their company.
Trump, who once praised Cawthorn as the “future of the Republican Party,” has also been silent about him since that defeat.
When the conservative youth organization Turning Point USA held its annual gathering in Tampa last month, speakers included Trump and House members Marjorie Taylor Green, Lauren Boebert, and Matt Gaetz. Although in previous years Cawthorn was high among the headliners, and described Turning Point leader Charlie Kirk as one of his best friends, this year Cawthorn was nowhere to be seen. (Turning Point USA did not respond to a request for explanation).
Cawthorn’s campaign staff is long gone. His campaign headquarters — a former tire store in Hendersonville — is empty, and all campaign mail goes to a rented mailbox inside a UPS store in a Hendersonville strip mall.
Several members of his congressional staff have departed. All but one of his four western North Carolina district offices are shuttered, and calls are routed to answering machines (although his website continues to list the old addresses, creating the misimpression that these offices remain open to handle the needs of his constituents).
“Potential Issues of Non-Compliance”
Under election laws, candidates are clearly warned not to spend any funds they raise for the general election until after a successful primary election. For Cawthorn there will be no general election, so he is required by law to repay in full the dozens of donors who gave him checks above the legal limit of $2,900 per election, typically to the maximum of $5,800 meant for both a primary and the general election.
He cannot offer to settle his campaign debts by offering to repay pennies on the dollar, or by issuing a mea culpa and declaring the equivalent of political bankruptcy.
Christian Hilland, a spokesman for the F.E.C., said the Aug. 1 letter mailed to Cawthorn’s campaign marks the first step in what likely will be a detailed investigation of the campaign’s activities. Hilland would say only that if this audit turns up “potential issues of non-compliance,” Cawthorn could face “enforcement action, which would remain confidential until the matter has been resolved.”
The F.E.C. has authority only to render civil penalties against violators, primarily through fines. It isn’t unusual for violators — and especially those who lost campaigns — to refuse to pay and drag out their cases for years. Yet in serious cases where such criminal actions as fraud are evident, the F.E.C. will turn its findings over to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. In a recent case initiated by the F.E.C., former Congressman David Rivera, a Florida Republican, was convicted in federal court and ordered to pay $456,000.
Court Cases Pending
The congressman also faces reckoning in three pending cases in three North Carolina courts, two of them previously postponed by judges prior to the May primary.
The first court date comes Aug. 29 and involves a late-night citation in Cleveland County, N.C., for driving with a revoked license and crossing a center line.
Three days later, on Sept. 1, Cawthorn must appear in Polk County court on an “extreme speeding” charge; he was ticketed in January for driving 87 miles per hour in a 70 m.p.h. zone. This case was originally set for April 18, but was postponed at Cawthorn’s request because of the imminent primary election.
Either of those cases could result in a fine and, though unlikely, up to 20 days in a county jail.
The most potentially severe of the looming court cases is set for Oct. 18 in Mecklenburg County Court (Charlotte) for “possession of a dangerous weapon on city property.”
The case arises from Cawthorn’s attempt to board a flight from the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport with a loaded 9-millimeter handgun (a $2,500 Staccato C2 semiautomatic pistol) in a carry-on bag, a potential felony. Cawthorn said he needs the pistol for personal defense, but said having it in his carry-on bag was a “mistake.”
It’s the second time Cawthorn was stopped trying to board a flight while carrying a pistol, following an incident at the Asheville airport in February 2021. His gun was confiscated but later returned, and he received a warning rather than a misdemeanor charge. The penalty for carrying a concealed firearm in an airport could result in up to 60 days in jail and fines.
Since being elected to Congress Cawthorn has also been warned by law enforcement authorities at least twice for carrying a $1,500 spring-loaded tactical knife on school properties, in violation of state law.
“Pump and Dump”
Meanwhile, the House Ethics Committee is weighing a complaint filed by North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis alleging that Cawthorn participated in an illegal “pump-and-dump” scheme to profit from the inflated sales of a crypto currency mocking President Biden. Tillis, a Republican, is an outspoken Cawthorn critic — the animosity between the two is mutual — who publicly backed Edwards in the G.O.P. primary.
In early December, Cawthorn touted the crypto-currency labeled “Let’s Go Brandon” on social media and claimed he had invested in it, and that it was going to “go to the moon.” According to his financial reports, on Dec. 31 Cawthorn sold his shares for at least $250,000. The shares plummeted within days. A spokesman for the Ethics Committee declined comment, citing the panel’s need to operate in secret. Its chairman is Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, Fla., a Democrat.
Cawthorn dropped from public view in the weeks following his primary loss, taking personal trips to Rome and to the Las Vegas strip, where he was photographed, apparently with traveling companions.
On his return to the House he filed several bills that have little chance of being taken seriously. For example, he proposes creation of a “Free City Commission” to “investigate and examine the effects that far-left policies are having on American cities.” Another would prohibit foreign governments from buying “private or public real estate” in the United States. A third would require President Biden to send American troops to the Mexican border if Biden dispatches troops to the Ukrainian border.
And a fourth would repeal the National Firearms Act, which in 1934 created the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and gave it the authority to tax and regulate the sale of weapons favored by such notorious gangster-era criminals as George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Al Capone, and John Dillinger. The N.F.A. also restricts the public’s ability to buy machine guns and grenades.
“I will never stop fighting for you in Congress,” Cawthorn said in announcing these measures.
A senior Republican staffer who worked with Cawthorn early on and has watched his rise and recent fall dismissed these proposals as attempts to save face in the view of his shrinking supporter base. But the staffer, who is now in the office of another Republican and requested anonymity, said Cawthorn smolders with anger at his sudden irrelevance.
One night in late July Cawthorn posted an Instagram video of himself in a tight, short-sleeved shirt, puffing on “my favorite cigar,” with the Capitol dome visible through a window behind him. He began with a rant against recent Democratic Party moves to curb inflation, to tax billion-dollar corporations, and to limit gun sales — a prelude, he claimed, to the government confiscating citizens’ guns ahead of the “slaughter.”
But then he turned and pointed the cigar toward the Capitol behind him and declared that “the overwhelming majority of people who work in this building — and I’d say probably 90 percent — are absolutely asinine and idiots and you should hold them accountable.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter and former executive editor of The Miami Herald. He lives in Asheville. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.