Washington, DC (TFC) – Two campaign finance watchdog groups have filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission, charging that three Republicans and one Democrat are soliciting campaign contributions for a Presidential run in contravention of FEC regulations. The Campaign Legal Center and Democracy21 assert that Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rick Santorum and Martin O’Malley are raising funds in excess of individual limits, opening campaign offices and hiring staff, and even publicly stating that they are running for President. According to the CLC statement, “the candidate contribution limits kick in as soon as a person begins raising and spending money to determine whether they’re going to run for office. Bush, O’Malley, Santorum and Walker appear to be violating federal law.” None of the candidates have issued any financial disclosures.
Democracy21 President Fred Wertheimer explains:
“While they travel around and act like candidates, talk like candidates, fundraise like candidates and build presidential campaign organizations like candidates, they have pretended not to be candidates. Indeed, they claim they are not even testing the waters to decide whether to become candidates. This is absurd.”
FEC regulations require the establishment of exploratory committees to “test the waters” of the likely success of a Presidential bid, accept donations, and conduct polling and other campaign research. These committees are limited to accepting donations under $2,700.00 from individuals, and are barred from accepting corporate or union contributions. The four candidates named, however, are aggressively campaigning by establishing campaign offices, traveling to fundraisers, and appearing as keynote speakers for interest group events. Michael Falcone of ABCNews writes, “Once you’re a candidate, you’re bound to federal campaign-money restrictions, and you can’t solicit donations over the $5,200 limit if that money will be used to support your candidacy. But until then, you can get away with a little bit more.”
Jeb Bush, for instance, has appeared at 7 high profile fundraisers raising over $1 Million so far. His SuperPAC, Right to Rise PAC, will not have to disclose any of its donors until July, unless Bush officially declares his bid for the Presidency. Scott Walker, as well, has opened a campaign office in Iowa, a location previously occupied by Michelle Bachmann in her late campaign run. Both candidates have repeatedly told news outlets of their intentions to be President. Yet neither they, nor many of the other 16 candidates have officially declared. “Jeb Bush is reportedly aiming to raise more than $50 million for his super PAC. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has opened an office in Iowa and is raising millions for a political group he created in January. Rick Santorum’s own aide is referring to him as a ‘candidate.’ These individuals are ‘candidates’ under the law,” says Paul Ryan of the CLC.
During this period, undeclared candidates are, according to the FEC complaints, raising exceptional amounts of money without the scrutiny of financial disclosures. Allie Brandenburger, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bush, said: “We are fully complying with the law in all activities Governor Bush is engaging in on the political front. If Governor Bush engages in any ‘testing the waters’ activities, they will be paid for appropriately under the law and reported at the required time.” Paul S. Ryan states, in an interview, that the “absurd” sums raised go far beyond reasonable contributions and expenditures.
“We don’t have a hard set number for [reasonable contributions]. Certainly a few hundred thousand, a million dollars, certainly strikes me as a reasonable amount. 50 million? No way. Types of activities historically that have been associated with testing the waters means travelling a little bit, meeting with some folks, to discuss your possible candidacy. That type of activity doesn’t take millions of dollars. It takes thousands. It’s absurd.”
Essentially, the “candidates” are courting the 0.5% of the US population to receive their financial vote, supporting their runs. This monetary vote nominates the potential candidates that the remainder of the population has the opportunity to vote for, without full democratic participation of the general public. “It’s about raising funds for excessive travel. To hiring and paying staff. While claiming that they are not testing the waters,” Ryan stated. “To put it bluntly, it’s absurd.” Carley Fiorina, Hillary Clinton, who Ryan termed “the Elephant in the room” and many others are engaged in this campaign for contributions, however, having stated that they are only “testing the waters” and receiving small contributions, these candidates appear in line with FEC regulations. “That’s what Lindsey Graham did. That’s what Ben Carson did. Jim Webb. They made clear their intentions to explore a presidential run. They are complying with the law that Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and others are openly flouting.”
The Campaign Legal Center may be testing the waters, here, as well. The CLC receives substantial funding from, among others, the Brennan Center for Justice, Democracy Fund, Open Societies Foundation, The Ford Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts and the Rockefeller Family Fund. Their ties to Big Oil,
George Soros and Warren Buffet raise significant questions about the dark money flowing through the CLC, and whether or not these FEC complaints are politically motivated. Ryan states emphatically, “definitely not.” He explains, “You’ve asked to the extent that our funders are involved in these complaints I’ve told you and factually correct representation that we’ve had no conversations with our funders about these complaints. Speculate as you will, but facts are facts.” Democracy21 maintains similar funding connections.
Nevertheless, The Fifth Column has already reported on dark money and lobbying expenditures of George Soros and the Koch Brothers delivering returns on investment. Whether Keystone XL, Ukraine, or public opinion swaying statistics from the Pew Trusts based on questionable methodology, TFC has shown how the contribution heavy weights are able to affect change through legislation, the courts or through the work of think tanks and watchdog groups.
The Koch Brothers have recently flouted their interest in funneling $900 Million into the 2016 elections. To do so, they are looking to expand their reach and partnerships. The Brennan Center and Pew Trusts are part of those new relationships. When asked about Koch Brother support, Ryan stated, “We wish we could get Koch Brothers money, but neither of our organizations can get Koch brothers money.” Perhaps not directly, but the Koch Brothers are notorious for laundering money through various organizations. While Ryan asserts that these complaints and a white paper published in January are independent projects, such legal actions certainly help to discredit some candidates, while boosting others.
On the issue of Keystone, alone, we know that both the Koch Brothers and Soros stand to profit substantially. Koch Industries owns the refineries that will be used, and Soros Fund Management owns a prominent stake of TransCanada, the company that is to build the pipeline. Funders like the Annenberg Foundation report significant endowments and contribution, but submit blank 990s to the IRS, with registered financial advisors in Greece, Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands. While much of the Annenberg’s income stems from bonds and treasuries, individual donors are concealed. Others, like the Pew Trusts or the multiple Rockefeller Family Foundations listed, of course, all exist because of oil fortunes. Even if the Koch Brothers and Soros don’t agree on who should become President, they may certainly agree on who they do not want to become President. With ongoing conflicts in oil rich regions like Ukraine, Syria and Yemen set to be high profile campaign issues, these major donors have a direct interest in who is nominated. If the candidate field can be narrowed to a mutually agreeable set in this early fundraising phase, then the American public will be voting for Soros and the Koch Brothers to win no matter who becomes President.
Ted Cruz, for instance, has already declared his candidacy. Cruz, while doing well in fundraising, cannot compete with Jeb Bush and his long family connections, or Walker, who is supported by the Koch Brothers, Billionaire Paul Menard, and the Bradley Foundation. Lower fundraising targets for Cruz grant easier access to the oil barons and billionaires. With the cost of access, then, being lower to a more impressionable candidate, then eliminating Bush becomes advantageous for both Soros and the Koch Brothers.
While the CLC and Democracy21 complaints to the FEC rightly hold candidates accountable for their absurd levels of fundraising, the financial support for these organizations raises its own questions about how American elections operate. The process of determining the nominees and candidates remains beholden to vested financial interests, and excludes 99.5% of the American populace. “Speculate as you will, but facts are facts. We are just as prone to file complaints against democrats when they engage in behavior that we believe to be illegal,” Ryan defends the CLC and its filings. While factually accurate, it still highlights the exclusion of the majority of the electorate from the electoral process and the base corruptness of the system itself. As more complaints are forthcoming, we will have to wait to see whether or not the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy21 help to clean up the corruption in the American electoral system, or whether or not they are helping to pick the winners for their funders.