In the wake of the Wisconsin case, and in the arguments more generally about “’coordination,” it has been suggested that not too much should be made of the dangers of criminal investigation in campaign finance cases. Hard-charging investigative techniques employed in the service of creative theories of liability are staples of white-collar criminal enforcement. Why, critics such as Rick Hasen ask, should campaign finance law enforcement be different?
The question of whether criminal campaign finance investigations are just like any other is worth careful consideration, detached from a lively, high-stakes conflict like Wisconsin’s. The federal experience is instructive.
The Seventh Circuit decision in Blagojevitch is an intriguing example of judges trying to draw careful distinctions between what is criminal, and what might be acceptable, in the conduct of politicians. Their aim is to protect standard political “logrolling” from criminal prosecution. Among other counts on which he was convicted, the former Governor was charged with trading an appointment to a Senate seat for a position, for himself, in the Cabinet. The United States threw the book at him—Hobbs Act extortion, honest services fraud, and bribery with public funds-- but where the prosecutors saw perfidy, the Court found only the ways of politics. It specifically rejected the government’s emphasis on Blagojevich’s logrolling for his own benefit—this is how the prosecution would separate political logrolling from impermissible self-interestedness, but the Court was not convinced.
The opinion is short and does not bring to the surface all of its implications. One question it explicitly left open was what in this analysis remains of 18 U.S.C. §599, which prohibits a federal candidate from promising appointments "to any public or private position or employment" in return for "support in his candidacy.” This was not an issue in the case, but the Court left no doubt that it presents a First Amendment question for another day.
A broader and difficult question is what precisely separates acceptable political “logrolling” from impermissibly personal self-dealing. There is something curious or at least not fully explained in the Court’s analysis, which treats a deal made with campaign money differently from one closed with an offer of a public position. Blagojevich was convicted of trying to sell a Senate appointment for cash but found not guilty of trading it for a government job for himself. In each case he was acting for his own political advancement and proposing to pay with an official act, but the outcome depended on whether campaign cash was thrown into the suggested bargain.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court was badly divided on the “coordination” question that it resolved in favor ending an ongoing criminal investigation. The majority and dissents expressed their disagreement in harsh terms, and there was a similar outbreak of ill-will or impatience among experts and seasoned observers trading views on the election law list serv. Dividing the camps for the sake of convenience into progressives and conservatives: the former were appalled by the case and the latter overjoyed, and neither could believe how the other was reacting. The case was either a nightmare for desperately needed reform, or a vindication of the rule of law in a struggle with political persecution and police state tactics.
But are the issues being fairly brought out amid all this vitriol, and is it necessarily true that the opinions on the coordination issues in Wisconsin must always and inevitably fall out along ideological and party lines?
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals had its chance to clarify the distinction between criminal and lawful politics, and it seems to have missed it. Among other issues, it was called on to consider the question of what constitutes an "official act.” In extensive briefing, the Court was warned that whatever one thinks of former Governor McDonnell's behavior, the jury was not properly instructed about where, in the world of politics, mutual backscratching ends, and bribery or honest services fraud begins. The cases cited included Citizens United (along with McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission) and their declaration that ingratiation and access are elements of ordinary political interaction, not corruption.
But the Court in McDonnell rejected the relevance of these cases. It insisted that an official act included “customary” or “settled” practices of the widest variety that cannot be known except upon the consideration of the facts in particular cases. The Court conceded that it might not be enough for such an act to simply relate to official duties. But it did not explain what the might be. So long as the officeholder might act in a fashion that could connect in any way and at any point to official duties--to any “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” to come before the government--it would be sufficient to qualify as an official act on which a criminal prosecution would be based. The connection would not have to be direct: the alleged official action could be one of a series of steps over time toward the accomplishment of the desired end.
It is understandable that the D.C. Circuit's Wagner decision upholding the federal contractor ban would attract a good bit of attention. The federal courts are suspected of harboring animus toward the campaign finance laws and here is a major decision going the other way and on fairly broad grounds. So it has been described as having the potential to be highly significant.
The decision was notable for the clarity and thoroughness of its presentation. The Court also deftly reinforces the available authority by use of case law stressing the particular dangers presented by political pressure on, or from, government employees. A strength, perhaps also a surprise, was the unanimity of the opinion.
It was also a relief to the decision’s admirers that the Court left open the question of whether federal contractors barred from contributing could make independent expenditures, or contribute to a Super PAC. So this fight is for another day. Hopes have been raised within the reform community that the Court's emphasis on the special threats posed by federal contractors’ direct giving might justify limits on their independent spending.
This is one impression the case leaves – that without dissent, and for this class of contributors, the Court was prepared to affirm unambiguously affirm the government’s regulatory authority. But then, after a step back, Wagner also illustrates how much excitement in this day and age of declining expectations about the campaign finance reform laws can develop around a case with limited practical effect that exposes problematic features of the current regulatory regime and its defense.
- Political Self-Dealing and Constitutional Innovation
- The Arizona Decision: Constitutional Reasoning Within the Reform Model
- An Exchange on the Arizona Redistricting Case
- Congressional Ethics Before the Court
- The FEC’s Problems
- Writing Campaign Finance Rules: Between “Thorough” Regulation or None at All
- “Desperate” at the FEC, Part II: The Risks of Unintended Consequences
- “Desperate” at the FEC
- Lobbyists and Campaign Finance: The “Bundling” Question
- The Supreme Court and the “Constituent”