Two federal candidates, who are also college faculty members, may continue to receive fringe benefits payments from their employer during their unpaid leaves of absence to run for Congress. These candidate/employees’ receipt of these benefits does not violate the ban on corporate contributions because the college’s payment is part of a consistent policy available to all qualified employees and will be made on the same terms as other faculty members.
Requestors John Trammell and David Brat are both professors at Randolph-Macon College, who are taking unpaid leaves of absence to campaign for the same U.S. House seat, in Virginia’s 7th District. Both filed separate advisory opinion requests — Trammell (2014-14) and Brat (2014-15) — asking whether they can continue to receive fringe benefits from the college while on their leaves of absence to run for federal office.
Democratic nominee Trammell has been employed by Randolph-Macon College (a Virginia corporation) since 2000, and he currently is employed as the Director of Disability Support Services and as an Assistant Professor. His opponent, Brat, won the Republican nomination and has been teaching at the college since September 1, 1996. Brat is currently a full-time, tenured professor at the college.
After Trammell and Brat won their respective nominations, the college offered them both unpaid leaves of absence on materially identical terms beginning on August 8, 2014. Memorandums of Understanding between the professors and the college lay out terms for their leaves of absence, which include the college’s continuation of its fringe benefits, including medical, life and disability insurance, as well as tuition reduction, exchange and remission
The college is continuing to pay fringe benefits for both candidates under its pre-existing policy for employees during a leave of absence. The benefit payments would continue during the candidates’ unpaid leave and end when Trammell and Brat either return to work or resign to take office, but not later than January 1, 2015, in either situation.
Both candidates asked the Commission whether the college’s payment of the employer portion of their fringe benefits complies with the Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act) and Commission regulations.
The Commission determined that the college may continue to pay the employer’s portion of fringe benefits, including tuition remission, during Trammell’s and Brat’s unpaid leaves of absence.
The Act prohibits a corporation from making any contribution in connection with a federal election. See 52 U.S.C. § 30118(a), (a)(2). Unearned corporate compensation for candidates could amount to a prohibited contribution, and Commission regulations state that a corporation may not pay fringe benefits to an employee who is on leave without pay in order to campaign as a federal candidate. See 11 CFR 114.12(c)(1).
However, the Commission’s explanation and justification for this regulation clarifies that the ban does not apply to fringe benefits for employees whose contract entitles them to take leave for any purpose. Additionally, under Commission regulations, a corporation’s payment of compensation to an employee does not amount to a prohibited contribution when the employee engages in campaign activity using bona fide vacation time or other earned leave time. See 11 CFR 100.54(c).
In its opinions, the Commission compared both professors’ requests to Advisory Opinion 1992-03 (Reynolds Metal Company), in which a corporation had established an unpaid leave policy of paying fringe benefits for 31 days after an employee’s last day of work. In that opinion, the Commission found that, because the benefits policy was pre-existing and not created to benefit an employee seeking federal office, the payment of benefits was a form of compensation payable to the employee as part of other earned leave time.
In Trammell’s and Brat’s situations, the Commission found that the college’s continuation of benefits for employees on leave is a form of conditional compensation for faculty members. The Commission noted the college plans to provide materially identical benefits to both employees/candidates in the same federal election. The college’s payment of fringe benefits, including tuition remission, to Trammell and Brat was found to be part of a consistent policy available to all qualified employees, and in keeping with the college’s policy of liberally granting sabbaticals and continuing benefits to employees, including those who take unpaid leave for non-political purposes.
Date Issued: October 10, 2014; AO 2014-14, 5 pages; AO 2014-15, 5 pages