WASHINGTON -- The main super PAC supporting Mitt Romney's presidential campaign has violated campaign finance law, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group said on Thursday. Paul Ryan, a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center, called foul on the Restore Our Future PAC for recycling a 2007 ad from the former governor's prior presidential bid.
The move by the group, which is filled with former Romney staffers and colleagues, violates campaign finance law that prohibits the republication of campaign materials by a super PAC, Ryan said.
On Thursday, Restore Our Future released an ad, titled "Saved," which is identical to a 2007 Romney campaign ad titled "Searched." The ad features Robert Gay, a former business partner of Romney, explaining how Romney shut down Bain Capital and brought 50 employees to New York City to track down Gay's daughter, who had snuck off from home to go to a rave. Both ads feature the same footage and the same monologue from Gay.
The only difference between the ads is that the Restore Our Future ad ends with the line "Brought to you by Restore Our Future" rather than the closing line of the 2007 Romney ad "I'm Mitt Romney and I approved this message."
"Super PACs are prohibited from making coordinated communications," Ryan said. "Super PACs are also prohibited from making payments to candidates," he added. "There's an FEC regulation that treats the dissemination, distribution or republication of campaign materials as a contribution from the super PAC to the candidate regardless of whether or not it's coordinated with the candidate," he said referring to the Federal Election Commission.
Said Ryan: "It appears that Restore Our Future, by republishing a Romney campaign ad, has clearly violated the law."
The Romney campaign could also face questions about its involvement if the republished campaign ad had been copyrighted by the campaign in 2007. If the campaign granted permission to the super PAC to use its copyrighted material, this would come into conflict with the FEC's rules against coordination.
"If Restore Our Future obtained permission to [republish the ad], then the Romney campaign would have violated federal law by accepting an in-kind contribution in the form of a coordinated ad," Ryan said.
A similar situation, although not as clear-cut, emerged earlier in the Republican presidential race when Make Us Great Again, a super PAC supporting Rick Perry's presidential bid, used footage from a Perry campaign ad in one of its own ads. The excuse presented by the super PAC for why this was acceptable was that the Perry campaign materials were in the public domain.
The FEC, however, has previously stated that groups, like super PACs, cannot claim that campaign materials are in the public domain as a way around the prohibition on republishing campaign materials because "such an exception could 'swallow the rule,' given that virtually all campaign material that could be republished could be considered to be 'in the public domain.'"
An investigation into the alleged violation of campaign rules could be begun by the FEC itself or a member of the public could ask the commission to look at the matter. An investigation could take as long as two years and could ultimately result in little more than a fine.
The Romney campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Restore Our Future's treasurer, Charles Spies, told The Huffington Post via an email that the group "purchased the rights to the footage from it's [sic] owner Cold Harbor films, which did not entail interacting with the Romney campaign."
The Campaign Legal Center's Ryan, however, said that this would not matter, according to the FEC rule about republication of campaign materials: "If the ad was prepared by Romney or an agent of Romney, then this rule applies. The rule would be meaningless if you could transfer the legal rights from the campaign to another actor."
The FEC's rule does not mention anything about the holding of a copyright, but simply states, "the dissemination, distribution, or republication, in whole or in part, of any broadcast or any written, graphic, or other form of campaign materials prepared by the candidate, the candidate's authorized committee, or an agent of either of the foregoing shall be considered a contribution for the purposes of contribution limitations and reporting responsibilities of the person making the expenditure."
Both ads include footage with Robert Gay making these statements:
Robert Gay: "My fourteen year-old daughter had disappeared in New York City for three days. No one could find her.
"My business partner stepped forward to take charge. He closed the company and brought almost all our employees to New York.
"He said, 'I don't care how long it takes – we're going to find her.'
"He set up a command center and searched through the night. The man who helped save my daughter was Mitt Romney.
"Mitt has done a lot of things that people say are nearly impossible. But for me, the most important thing he's ever done is help save my daughter."