Features

Trouble by the bundle

"Trouble by the bundle" Continued...

Issue: "He's in," Sept. 22, 2007

Are campaigns intentionally leveraging the loophole to conceal unethical fundraising?

Hayward doubts it: "When people do figure out that something's amiss, it's incredibly embarrassing and expensive for the campaign." Campaigns are likely to return more donations than they actually received in order to disinfect the candidate of the barest residue of scandal. More likely, Hayward said, campaigns today are skirting the conduit requirement in order to attract well-connected fundraisers who want to help their candidate, but with a low profile and without the regulatory hassle.

Federal Election Commission spokesman Bob Biersack agrees. "In the cases we have seen in the past, it has turned out for the most part that the candidate who was receiving the funds was unaware of the actions of those illegally giving contributions," said Biersack, who has been with the FEC since 1981. "It is fair to say that it can be difficult for campaigns to identify cases where [illegalities] might happen."

Such was the case with Michigan attorney Geoffrey Fieger who last month pleaded not guilty to raising $127,000 in illegal contributions for John Edwards' 2004 presidential campaign. According to an indictment, Fieger (who also famously defended death-doctor Jack Kevorkian) used straw donors, including law firm employees and their children, to make $2,000 contributions to Edwards' campaign, then issued checks reimbursing individuals for their contributions. In addition, Fieger allegedly solicited donations from contractors, then disguised reimbursements as fees for services.

The Edwards campaign has cooperated fully in the investigation, according to the FEC. But a Sept. 2 Washington Post editorial noted that Edwards in 2004 refused to identify his bundlers. The newspaper called for legislation requiring disclosure of all bundles. But Allison Hayward points out that Fieger's donor connections would already have surfaced had the Edwards campaign been following the existing conduit-letter rule. Meanwhile, she said, new layers of regulation would hurt grassroots groups and fresh political faces more than veterans whose political machines can easily absorb the additional costs of compliance in money and manpower.

Chapman University's John Eastman argues that, as with immigration reform, America doesn't need new rules just because it isn't following the old ones. He compared further regulation of bundling to the carnival midway game in which plastic gophers pop up from different holes while players try to smash them back down with a mallet. Such reform "doesn't address the problem at the root, which is the extent to which government ought to be in the business of telling people how much political speech they can engage in," Eastman said. "As long as government keeps trying to hammer political speech down, it will keep popping back up in other forms. There is no way you can limit political speech in a democracy."

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