The de Blasio campaign finance investigation ended with explanations from federal and state authorities of their decision not to pursue charges. The Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. chose to give the lengthier account: ten pages of conclusions of law and facts in a letter to the State Board of Elections, which had referred the matter for investigation. Yet again in recent legal history, the prosecutor declines to prosecute but does not stop there, adding his disapproval of the conduct he would not indict. He also suggests how the law could be improved so that it more directly, clearly prohibited the actions he does not approve of. The letter is something less than a model for productive prosecutorial encounters with the political process.
The District Attorney is passing on a case that involves a coordinated campaign of candidates, party leaders and party organizations to deliver support to targeted State Senate races. The question was whether party county committees became conduits for contributions to candidates that were larger in amount than what the candidates could accept directly. Donors were solicited for contributions to the parties, and the parties promptly provided the money to the campaigns for immediate use in paying their consultants. The coordinated campaign drew up plans for this arrangement with the county committees and submitted them to legal counsel for review. Counsel then approved of what the prosecutors refer to as an “end run” around the candidate contribution limits. The lawyer put his advice in writing and stayed in close contact with the client, providing “consistent advice” from planning to execution. The DA found no evidence of “bad faith” in the way the advice was sought or delivered.
The Federal Election Commission’s job is hard, harder than many will admit, but the agency somehow manages to make it even harder. So now, five years after the fact, the FEC has decided not to investigate a donor's alleged use of an LLC to mask a $1 million contribution to a Super PAC. The word of the non-decision got out before any member of the FEC could explain it or any of the case materials were released.
So naturally the agency looks somewhat silly. Some might and do ask: how could it be that the alleged establishment of an LLC to mask the true source of a large contribution isn't even subject to an investigation? And why would it take almost five years for that inconclusive result to be reached? Maybe the case files once released, along with the explanations of the different Commissioners, will provide some answer to those questions.
The case did take an unusual turn in 2011 when the individual donor came forward, claimed that a lawyer had advised him that he could do this, and asked that the Super PAC amend its reports to disclose him as the true donor. In other words: on the date that the complaint was filed and before the FEC began its review, the harm of the particular case was being redressed. And presumably complicating matters was the donor’s contention that he acted on legal advice.
The case brought by the Independence Institute against the “electioneering communication” disclosure requirement enacted by McCain-Feingold could prove to be highly significant. This is an as-applied challenge; it contests the mandatory reporting of a "pure" issue ad if, within specified days prior to an election, it refers to a public official who is also a candidate for federal office. Some believe that this claim was foreclosed by McConnell v. FEC and Citizens United. Independence Institute disagrees, arguing that the Court has never held that issue speech loses constitutional protection against disclosure, including donor disclosure, just because it airs during an election season.
What may stand in the way are summary comments the Court has made, most notably in Citizens United, where the Justices suggested that it did not matter to the application of the electioneering communication requirement whether a communication contained the “functional equivalent of express advocacy.” 558 U.S. 310, 369. One reading is that the Court had no patience with disclosure objections, end of story. Even a "pure" issue ad—even such an ad run with no apparent electioneering interest or motive –is subject to disclosure if it includes a reference to a public official who was a candidate.
Perhaps this is what the Court intended to say, but this interpretation puts considerable weight on general statements and very little or none at all on the line of authority established by Buckley that campaign finance law could not override the distinction in the constitutional law between campaign and issues speech.
One line of argument in the McDonnell case briefing accepts that supporters might expect some preferential treatment—“procedural access,” like a meeting—but not official influence to carry the supporter’s case on the merits. This is one way that routine politics would be distinguished from corrupt politics.
Professor Jeffrey Bellin, thoughtfully but also passionately, says that this won’t do, and that routine politics, including rewarding supporters with access, ought to be criminalized. Getting any preferential consideration for money is quid pro quo corruption. If the Court will establish and hold this line, Professor Bellin argues, it will reduce the significance of money in politics and “the big money will dry up.”
One question is how the Court would fashion a workable rule along these lines. Without a “per se rule” barring an elected official from ever scheduling meetings with a contributor, or making similar accommodations, the approach Bellin favors would require scrutinizing the motives, often mixed, of politicians. A politician might schedule a meeting requested by a contributor because she has given, but also because she has something to say that the elected official would like to hear. Or the politician might even have something to say to the donor—something she, the politician, would like to have understood by the industry or interests that a donor might represent. The contributor might also have provided other forms of support that the officeholders might wish to recognize—like help on the campaign trail. It is difficult to say where the raw politics end and the rotten, corrupt kind begin, and no easier to believe that prosecutors and courts are in the best position to judge the question.
But there are additional problems with this emphasis on money. Supporters who deliver votes, endorsements or favorable media commentary are also banking plenty of goodwill with an elected official, and they will also expect that their calls will be returned and that their requests for meetings will be answered affirmatively. They are being recognized for their political speech (and other actions that are expressive in character). Why would giving money, within the legal limits of the law, be treated as somehow so different that we would deny these speakers comparable treatment, then subject them to the criminal laws if they get it? In what way is money different?
A number of political candidates over the years have recounted the experience of raising too much money, too much of the time, for their campaigns. They find it awkward and embarrassing to ask for the money, and the pace and intensity of this fundraising consume too much time that could be diverted to more productive uses. They understand the suspicions it raises in those looking on from the outside. Congressman Steve Israel is the most recent to write about experience, and he is a respected elected official whose contribution to this narrative will not be ignored.
Israel is not talking about fundraising events to which tickets are sold, or about appeals on line or in the mail. It is about the person asked for money face to face, or ear to ear: the direct "ask", which will be answered positively, negatively, or somewhere in between. It is a personal appeal, but one that is managed and strained: the candidate crammed in the cubicle with a phone, staff at his side, reading off notecards with bits of data about the fundraising target on the other end of the line.
Reform theorists worry about the risk in this contact of trading policy for money, or about the dangers of intense association over time with people who have lots of money. On the conscious level, the politician may be tempted to offer something for cash; on the subconscious level, he simply may come to prefer the company of rich people and identify with their policy objectives and interests.
But it can be more complicated than that. Gift theorists—not to be confused with reform theorists—tell us that the psychology of giving and receiving is never simple. William Ian Miller has written that “central to the notion of the gift is the way in which reciprocity is effected and enforced,” and this is tricky business, because gift giving and receiving have the potential to “threaten, humiliate, annoy, manipulate, and vex.” William Ian Miller, Humiliation (1993), 21, 23.