Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders may not remember much about the rallies they each held last year in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
But officials at Green Bay City Hall sure do. And they’re miffed the three politicos have stiffed them on police protection bills totaling $24,000.
"We appreciate, and we feel honored, when the candidates come to Green Bay," said Celestine Jeffreys, chief of staff to Mayor Jim Schmitt. "We are also very appreciative when they honor their debts."
Green Bay is no anomaly.
At least three-dozen municipal governments and law enforcement agencies say presidential campaigns have ignored hundreds of thousands of dollars in outstanding bills stemming from police security for campaign events — from Vallejo, California, to the University of Pittsburgh. That’s according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal campaign disclosures and municipal invoices, as well as interviews with more than 60 local government officials.
Presidential campaigns asserted in communications with some city governments that they’re not responsible for many security costs. But this widespread failure to pay follows an election season when many presidential candidates — particularly Trump — argued that law enforcement deserved both more resources and more respect.
Trump’s campaign alone hasn’t paid nearly $204,000 worth of police-related invoices, according to municipal billing records obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
And Trump arguably owes more.
That’s because the Trump campaign — despite receiving demand letters and collection notices — doesn’t acknowledge in federal campaign financial disclosures that it owes cities a cent. Nor does the Clinton campaign, which hasn't paid at least $25,000 in bills. The Sanders campaign, in contrast, says in federal campaign filings that it owes $449,409, spread among nearly two-dozen municipalities and law enforcement agencies.
The differing approaches make it difficult to determine just how many security-related bills have been sent to the major White House hopefuls since their campaigns began touring the nation in earnest in mid-2015. The Trump, Clinton and Sanders campaigns wouldn’t comment.
Complicating cities’ collection efforts: local officials often can’t force campaigns to pay unless they signed a formal, contractual agreement with the campaigns, which many have not.
Contract or not, many mayors, police chiefs and city managers say presidential candidates who profess to support law enforcement should back up their words with dollars.
"There shouldn’t be much debate about it — cities across America provided protection at a cost and should be reimbursed for it," said Mayor John McNally of Youngstown, Ohio, which is still waiting for the Sanders campaign to pay a nearly $6,000 bill for security the city provided at a March 14 campaign event.
Who should pay for candidate safety?
When a barnstorming presidential candidate sweeps into a city for a campaign rally, often on just a few days notice, if that, it’s often unclear who’s financially responsible for securing the event.
Here’s how events typically unfold: Before a campaign event, the U.S. Secret Service, which is primarily responsible for ensuring the safety of presidential candidates, asks local police departments or other public safety agencies to assist them.
Local governments almost never refuse. They’ll then deploy officers to serve a variety of functions: crowd control, perimeter patrols, closing streets, escorting dignitaries.
After the candidate comes and goes, the host city sometimes bills the presidential campaign for police officer overtime and other related costs.
During presidential candidate events, police forces and municipalities arguably provided governmental services for which campaigns — absent a contract or other security services agreement — aren’t financially responsible, said Eric Wang, a Washington, D.C.-based election lawyer at Wiley Rein LLP and former counsel to current Federal Election Commission Vice Chairwoman Caroline Hunter.
"Reasonable people could certainly dispute whether there is any disputed debt to be reported here," Wang said. "Just because the local police departments and governments may want the campaigns to reimburse them for the additional security costs doesn’t necessarily mean that, as a matter of law, there is a ‘debt.’"
After all, if candidates had to pay (or at least publicly disclose as "debt") any bill they received, what would stop someone, particularly scam artists or unscrupulous political actor, from attempting to bleed a campaign of money it doesn’t owe?
Federal law doesn’t offer much clarity.
There’s a "significant amount of ambiguity" in FEC regulations regarding what candidates must publicly disclose as debt, said Brett Kappel, a D.C.-based election lawyer at Akerman LLP.
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.