Outside groups that set up fake campaign websites for candidates in order to skim donations didn't commit fraud, according to the Federal Election Commission. Yet another reason to celebrate our brave new campaign financing world.
During the 2012 campaign, a number of political action committees figured out that by creating websites that looked like campaign websites, they could get people to give them money. It wasn't more complicated than that. The group Coalition of Americans for Political Equity bought the domain votewest2012.org, put some "Allen West for Congress 2012" logos on the site, and pushed people toward the contributions page. Four groups including CAPE PAC raised over $14 million from sites purportedly supporting Allen West and other candidates, according to the Washington Examiner. (That's money that the Examiner says could have helped West win his closely contested race, but West widely outraised his opponent, Rep. Alan Grayson, regardless.)
"The record leaves little doubt that [Patriot Super PAC] sought to use Representative West's likeness to raise funds independently to support his candidacy," reads the FEC's letter to the West campaign about one group. And, further, that Patriot "spent very little of the money it raised to support West," instead spending money on more fundraising activity — including radio spots, the text of one of which is at right. The groups West had singled out, including Patriot, responded to the FEC by arguing that their political activity and fundraising adhered to the letter of the law.
The FEC was forced to agree. "The record here does not provide a reasonable basis to believe that Patriot made fraudulent misrepresentations" that implied the sites and ads were from West himself. And it included a number of disclaimers that, the FEC felt, should have provided sufficient warning to people who were making contributions.
As it stands, any group that wants to can create a Super PAC. It can create a website saying things like, "Rep. Smith 2014: Ensure that Rep. Smith wins reelection by donating now!" Really. As the Examiner notes, one group asked that visitors "please give Allen West your swift and generous support." The PAC can point people to a website where they take credit card submissions, with text all over the place saying that the site is created and run by Americans for America PAC. And then it can just vacuum up money anywhere it pleases.
It is a combination of two of the greatest American traditions. The first is the freedom of speech that the Supreme Court is so anxious to see upheld as broadly as possible when it comes to political contributions. The second is the old saying, "buyer beware."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.