The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, which does not comment on specific cases, permits former candidates to keep their accounts open as long as they continue to report their financial activity. Permissible spending includes contributions to other candidates, charitable causes, and administrative and campaign expenses.
Sweeney said two years ago he would not seek reelection as freeholder when his term expired at the end of 2011. When he stepped down in December, he said his schedule as a freeholder, Senate president, and an ironworkers' union leader had become difficult to maintain while also dealing with diabetes.
In April 2009, before suggesting he wouldn't run again, Sweeney filed the first report for his freeholder reelection account and began to collect campaign contributions from unions, government contractors, and other groups. His earliest spending included $631 for a November 2008 election-night limousine and $482 for an election-night dinner at Charlie Brown's Steakhouse in Woodbury.
In Sweeney's final months as freeholder, the account paid $14,830 for watches (Sweeney said they were Christmas gifts), $6,287 at the Old Homestead Steakhouse at Atlantic City's Borgata Hotel Casino, and $2,808 for a "Democrat breakfast."
In January, the fund still had $87,537 in the bank.
Other former candidates have kept their campaign accounts open.
Camden County Democrat Joe Roberts, who retired in January 2010 as Assembly speaker, left the position with $891,857 in campaign money.
The account spent little until this fall, when it distributed $96,400 to political committees, lending a hand to Democrats in some of New Jersey's most competitive races.
Among other contributions, Roberts gave $18,200 to the three Democratic candidates in Atlantic County's Second District; $8,200 to Assemblyman Troy Singleton in Burlington County's Seventh District; and $5,000 to Sen. Bob Gordon in the 38th District. He also donated $20,000 each to the Senate Democratic Majority and Camden County Democratic Committee.
"When a candidate leaves office and has a political committee, they can keep it active in the event that they may seek office in the future, which is always an option I'm thinking about," Roberts said last week.
Sweeney's freeholder account has not spent as much to help other candidates, though it did donate $37,000 to the Gloucester County Democratic Committee.
Sweeney said the recent polling expense was for candidates he declined to name.
As for all the meals? Sweeney said he had a "zero gift policy," so whenever he attends a political meeting, he pays.
State records made public this week show he spent $28,164 in the third quarter of this year on meals, charitable donations, phone bills, polling, and research for other campaigns.
He has just $4,787 left.
"I'll donate it to someone else," he said, "or some cause."
But Sweeney - whose position in the Democratic-controlled Legislature gives him sole power to move and kill bills in the Senate - has other outlets to accept and spend campaign contributions when this one folds.
He has amassed $840,410 in his Senate reelection account and $193,497 in a reelection account he shares with Democratic Assembly members John Burzichelli and Celeste Riley, also of the Third District.
There's also $309,926 in the Senate Democratic Majority's fund, which he controls, that dispenses money to party causes.
Contact staff writer Maya Rao at 609-989-8990, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Mrao_Inquirer on Twitter.