At some time in April—and the timing here will be important later—the author Peter Schweizer held a private meeting with Sen. Rand Paul about Schweizer's yet-to-be-published book, Clinton Cash. In the book, Schweizer outlines what he says are examples of a pattern of behavior wherein Bill and Hillary Clinton have compromised their ethics for financial gain.
Now, Schweizer and Paul are facing their own allegations of misspent resources.
On Wednesday, the American Democracy Legal Fund—a left-leaning group that trawls Republicans' campaign-finance records—filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Paul, his presidential campaign, Schweizer, and his publisher, HarperCollins. The ADLF is run by Brad Woodhouse, who also serves as director of the Democratic opposition-research firm American Bridge for the 21st Century.
The Democratic group's argument centers on what is known as an "in-kind contribution" in campaign-finance lingo. The FEC considers anything of value an in-kind contribution, such as furniture, office appliances, supplies. This definition extends to services rendered to candidates, which is where things get murky.
"A donation of services is also considered an in-kind contribution," the FEC guide reads. "For example, if you pay a consultant's fee or a printing bill for services provided to a campaign, you have made an in-kind contribution in the amount of the payment."
Now, the FEC's six commissioners will have to decide whether Schweizer's meeting with Paul to walk through the findings of his book qualifies as such a campaign service. The complaint ADLF filed Wednesday alleges that, by briefing Paul on information gathered from a book that had not yet been made public, Schweizer gave Paul an "in-kind contribution" potentially exceeding the individual donation limit of $2,700.
"The value of this in-kind contribution is likely in excess of $2,700. Therefore, Senator Paul accepted and Schweizer made an excessive in-kind campaign contribution," the ADLF's complaint reads. "Additionally, because corporate contributions are prohibited, HarperCollins Publisher made and Senator Paul accepted an impermissible corporate contribution."
One problem with the complaint: Schweizer says he met with Paul before Paul was an official presidential candidate. He said he gave two separate briefings—one to Paul and one to Sen. Bob Corker—in their capacity as members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as a favor to a friend who asked him to do it.
Reached by phone on Wednesday, Schweizer did not sound surprised, much less intimidated, by news of the complaint.
"I think it's ridiculous," he told National Journal. "If you give a briefing to a senator on a relevant committee, and they're not an announced presidential candidate, it's hard for me to understand how that constitutes an in-kind contribution to their campaign."
Another hang-up in the complaint: Both Schweizer and a HarperCollins representative said HarperCollins had no knowledge of the meeting between Paul and Schweizer.
"The publisher had nothing to do with it," Schweizer said.
While the ADLF may face an uphill battle in its complaint, it usefully illustrates the thorniness of campaign-finance law. In this case, there are many moving parts that could affect the commission's decision: when Schweizer met with Paul, what information was discussed (Schweizer said all the new information in the briefings is provided in the book), what other members of Congress Schweizer met with (Corker), how much time Schweizer spent researching his book, how Paul has used the information he obtained during the meeting (see here), and so on. All of these variables are effectively rendered moot if the meeting happened before Paul officially became a candidate.
Larry Noble, a senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said that if Schweizer did give Paul the rundown of his book after Paul became an official candidate, that would make the FEC's decision trickier.
"Depending on when he gave it and what the information was, it could be seen as giving him something of value," Noble told National Journal. "If what it was intended to do was just to give them ammunition against Hillary Clinton and to give Rand Paul, specifically, ammunition to use against Hillary Clinton, then it looks more political. It looks more like it could be an in-kind contribution."
The FEC filing against Schweizer is part of a larger effort on the Left to discredit him—and his criticism of Clinton in the process. Media Matters, a left-leaning group chaired by Clinton watchdog David Brock, has been attacking Schweizer's book from the other side, alleging that his reporting is not to be trusted.
It also goes to show the lengths that outside groups are willing to take to troll their political opponents in 2016. Since January, the ADLF has leveled similar ethics complaints against Jeb Bush, Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. Scott Walker, and Sen. Ted Cruz.
While the group may not have reeled in a big catch yet—FEC complaints can take six to 12 months to decide—the simple existence of the complaint can imbue the targeted candidate with an aura of impropriety. And sometimes in politics, that's all you really need.