With candidates and outside groups already raking in money for the 2016 presidential contest and the Federal Election Commission abdicating its duty to enforce campaign finance laws, watchdog groups are pushing the Department of Justice to fill the void. To start, groups are asking the DOJ to investigate one of the most blatant exploiters of lax enforcement: Jeb Bush.
For months now the former Florida governor has insisted that he is not quite sure if he will run for the Republican presidential nomination. “No, no. I’m not an official candidate,” he said during an exchange with reporters a few weeks ago—never mind that he’s been crisscrossing the country raising amounts cash unprecedented for an undeclared candidate. Bush himself has struggled to maintain the farce, as he demonstrated minutes later when he accidentally declared, “I’m running for president in 2016.”
The implications of Bush’s protracted non-candidacy are serious. By waiting to announce his bid for the White House, Bush has skirted one of the last remaining campaign finance rules: the ban on coordination between candidates and Super PACs. (To be sure, that supposed firewall already looks more like a shower curtain.) Once Bush officially declares his intention to run, his campaign will be bound by that rule and by limits on donations directly to candidates ($2,700 in the primaries). But until then, absent action by regulators, Bush is apparently free to raise money and direct strategy for Right to Rise, the Super PAC that is expected to eventually take on many operations normally undertaken by a campaign committee—not just television and online advertising but also direct mail, data collection, and phone banking. And unlike a campaign committee, the Super PAC’s ability to raise money for these activities won’t be hampered by contribution limits.
In a letter sent to Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Wednesday, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 allege that this “charade” of non-candidacy amounts to “a scheme to allow unlimited contributions to be spent directly on behalf of the Bush campaign and thereby violate the candidate contribution limits enacted to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption.” The groups asked the DOJ to appoint a special counsel from outside the department to investigate the allegation, noting that it would look suspicious were a Democrat-appointed Attorney General to go after a Republican candidate.
The letter argues that Bush should be considered a candidate because he’s been acting like one “in all pertinent respects.” He’s hired strategists and buttered up local Republican leaders in early primary states like New Hampshire and Iowa. He’s headlined dozens of events for Right to Rise, many of them fundraisers with a $100,000 ticket price. His advisers are overseeing the Super PACs operations. Reportedly Bush has even set the timing of his official campaign announcement—expected mid-June—to leave room for a “cross-country fundraising tour” for Right to Rise before the non-coordination rule kicks in.