What’s behind the claim that Hillary Clinton got ‘$84 million in illegal contributions?’

Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., made the accusation during an interview Tuesday with MSNBC.

In an interview Tuesday with MSNBC, after calling for a "purge" of FBI agents proven to be biased against President Donald Trump, Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., made an eye-popping accusation against Hillary Clinton. 

"We've seen a lot of ends-before-the-means culture, both out of the Obama administration; out of Hillary Clinton, you know, with her $84 million of potentially illegal campaign contributions or the Clinton Foundation Uranium One [scandal]," said Rooney. "People need a good clean government." 

What was behind Rooney's claim that Clinton's 2016 campaign possibly received millions in illegal money? It was the first time a member of Congress had referred to an Federal Election Commission complaint lodged by a pro-Trump super PAC against Clinton and most state Democratic parties. 

In the complaint, the Committee to Defend the President asked the FEC to determine whether the defeated Democrat engaged in "unprecedented, massive, nationwide multimillion dollar conspiracy" to allow large donors to spread more money around. The "conspiracy," however may have simply taken advantage of new loopholes in campaign finance law - loopholes expanded after a Supreme Court victory by the lawyer who filed the new complaint. 

The story starts in 2012, when Republican donor Shaun McCutcheon sued over FEC regulations that limited how much money donors could give to parties and candidate, in total, in any campaign cycle. McCutcheon's case made it to the Supreme Court in 2013, where defenders of the FEC limits failed to convince the court's conservative bloc that lifting the limit would allow candidates to blow past their own donation limits by routing more money through state parties. 

"How realistic is that?" asked Justice Samuel Alito during oral arguments. "How realistic is it that all of the state party committees, for example, are going to get money and they're all going to transfer it to one candidate?" 

In the end, it was very realistic. In 2016, Hillary Clinton's campaign created a Hillary Victory Fund — a joint fundraising committee — that allowed the candidate to raise money for both her campaign and 32 state parties at the same time. Donald Trump's campaign did the same, albeit with fewer state parties. During the campaign, neither move courted much controversy. 

After the campaign, the dam broke. In October, former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile began releasing excerpts from her memoir "Hacks," in which she described a DNC that was effectively run "from Brooklyn" — i.e., by Clinton's campaign. Brazile's criticisms got noticed by Dan Backer, who'd won McCutcheon's case at the Supreme Court, and who happened to be the attorney behind the Committee to Defend the President. Donors who had given to the Hillary Victory Fund, whose money had been "earmarked" to elect Clinton, had, he argued, been part of a laundering scheme. 

"The DNC, in turn, contributed most of those funds to HFA, made coordinated expenditures with HFA and otherwise transferred control of its money to HFA, as both the DNC's own public filings and former DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile's public confessions make clear," Backer wrote in the complaint. "In McCutcheon v. FEC, 134 S. Ct. 1434, 1455 (2014), the Supreme Court itself recognized this precise arrangement would flatly violate federal earmarking restrictions, 52 U.S.C. § 30116(a)(8); 11 C.F.R. § 110.6, though the Court dismissed the possibility of such a flagrantly illegal scheme as 'unlikely' to occur. Not even the Supreme Court could anticipate the extent to which the Democratic Party and its elite, wealthy donor class would commit willful felonies in a futile attempt to facilitate Clinton's election." 

Until Tuesday, most coverage of the FEC complaint had appeared in conservative media. Fox News reported that Clinton and the DNC had been accused of a "corrupt money scheme." Backer explained the complaint's logic in the conservative op-ed pages of Investor's Business Daily. 

Democrats, meanwhile, basically ignored the story. Reached for comment, several state party chairs — all of their state parties having been named in the complaint — said they were unaware of it. In the weeks since Brazile's book was released, state Democratic Party chairs have criticized the 2016 funding arrangement; none thought it was illegal. 

In an email, Backer argued that the complaint rested entirely on what Democrats had said and done about the JFC. 

"If state parties NEVER had any actual custody or control, the 'allocation' of funds to them was never a contribution to them, but rather an attempt to paper the funds through strawmen on the way to the DNC, where the funds were placed under the control of Team Clinton in Brooklyn," Backer wrote. "Thus, the $300,000(ish) from Calvin Klein was not a contribution to each of the participating entities, but rather an excessive contribution to at least the DNC, AND since they took that money and put it under the custody and control of Team Clinton, it is an excessive contribution to the campaign. If that's how it was pitched to donors (I'll bet you a steak dinner on that one), those doing the pitching violated federal law." 

Democrats have, by and large, declined to comment about Backer's complaint. Campaign finance watchdogs, however, believe that the pro-Trump super PAC may be on to something. Paul Ryan, a vice president of Common Cause who works on campaign finance issues, said that "the possibility of this type of scheme was why I was critical of McCutcheon in the first place," and that some type of probe into practice of new, larger joint fundraising agreements might have been inevitable. 

"In my view, the complaint does show enough smoke to warrant investigation into whether there was a fire," said Ryan. "It would be good to get some guidance from the FEC on this. Either way you cut the Backer complaint, this is either illegal activity, or it's legal but troubling." 

Campaign finance watchdogs had been waiting for a tough examination of the donor pools created in 2016. It's unclear how long it might take the FEC to dig in; it took years, after the 2008 and 2012 cycles, for the commission to levy fines against the campaigns of John Edwards and Mitt Romney.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Politics

Emmanuel Macron, seen as France’s Obama, may govern more like Trump
Emmanuel Macron, seen as France’s Obama, may govern more like Trump

Ahead of his state visit to Washington this week, French President Emmanuel Macron has attracted international praise for being the only European — perhaps even the only Western — head of state willing to confront head-on the rise of anti-democratic regimes.  "I don't want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers that has forgotten...
Navigating a maze of voting laws for felons
Navigating a maze of voting laws for felons

If a person is convicted of first-degree murder in the state of Vermont, he or she will retain the right to vote — even while incarcerated. But a person who commits perjury in Mississippi could be permanently barred from casting a ballot there.  It is up to states — not the federal government — to say whether felons can vote...
China could boycott U.S. products. Here’s why that might backfire.
China could boycott U.S. products. Here’s why that might backfire.

If China calls for a boycott of U.S. goods, Chinese workers like David Xu could be in trouble.  Xu is one of thousands of residents of this port town who cash paychecks from U.S. companies. He works as a technician at a Procter & Gamble manufacturing and distribution center here, one of the company’s biggest in China. Across town, Nike has...
“Yes, I’m running as a socialist.” Why candidates are embracing the label in 2018
“Yes, I’m running as a socialist.” Why candidates are embracing the label in 2018

There was no question on primary night in Texas last month that Franklin Bynum would win the Democratic nomination to become a criminal court judge in Houston. The 34-year-old defense attorney had no challengers.  But for his supporters who packed into a Mexican restaurant that evening, there was still something impressive to celebrate. Many in...
The ‘fixer’ for Trump becomes a danger
The ‘fixer’ for Trump becomes a danger

When Donald Trump won the presidency, his longtime attorney Michael Cohen seemed in position for a coveted spot in the senior ranks of the White House.  At one point, Cohen topped a list of five candidates for White House counsel, according to documents reviewed by The Washington Post. He suggested to some Trump allies that he might make a good...
More Stories