WASHINGTON -- Two campaign finance watchdogs have filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission asking for an investigation into potential violations of campaign contribution limits originally reported by The Huffington Post.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the Campaign Legal Center filed their complaint on Wednesday, calling for the FEC to investigate donors whose total contributions appeared to exceed the overall contribution limits in the 2012 election cycle.
Campaign finance law prohibited individual donors from giving more than $46,200 in total to federal candidates, $70,800 to parties and political action committees, and $117,000 overall in the 2011-12 cycle. (Those limits are indexed to inflation and have gone up for the 2013-14 cycle.) The HuffPost report found at least 49 donors whose contributions, based on FEC records, had violated at least one of these limits by a significant amount.
"A lot of these donors are sophisticated donors," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW. "When you're that wealthy and contributing that amount of money, you have an obligation to follow the rules just like everyone else."
"For decades, the Supreme Court and Congress have recognized contribution limits as a critical means of preventing corruption," said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center. "The FEC should move swiftly to investigate these seemingly blatant violations of federal law."
If history is any guide, an FEC investigation will take time. In 1990, the Los Angeles Times reported on at least nine donors who had exceeded the then-$25,000 aggregate contribution limit. A subsequent FEC probe did not reach a conclusion until 1993, when 10 donors agreed to pay fines.
As the first step in the investigation, donors named in the complaint are likely to receive a letter from the FEC asking them to detail their contributions and explain irregularities.
A number of the donors contacted by HuffPost explained that their excessive contributions were attributable to mistakes either on their part (signing a check incorrectly) or on the part of the campaign committees receiving their money (incorrectly recording a jointly signed check or putting that money into the federal account of a state party committee rather than the state account). Donors who can show that these types of errors led to their exceeding the limits would almost certainly not face penalties.
The investigation could lead to fines for donors whose violation of the limits was not due to recordkeeping errors. Another possibility is that those who "knowingly and willfully" violated the limits could see their cases referred to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, although a criminal prosecution for exceeding overall contribution limits has never happened before.
Still, given that some of the donor totals identified by HuffPost were double and even triple the limits, Sloan said, "You have to wonder if it wasn't a knowing and willful violation."