Bachmann PAC donation may violate campaign finance rulesby Catharine Richert, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Using a secondary pot of money not meant for her presidential race, Rep. Michele Bachmann donated $5,000 to Iowa's Polk County GOP in August — money that the campaign and the group agreed to spend on an event exclusively for Bachmann, according to the Polk County GOP officials.
Because it appears to have been used for campaigning purposes, the donation may be a violation of Federal Election Commission rules, legal experts say.
The money trail begins on Aug. 1, when Bachmann's leadership political action committee - dubbed MICHELEPAC for short — recorded a donation of $5,000 to the Polk County GOP, an influential group among Republicans in Iowa.
Lawmakers typically dole out leadership PAC cash to other candidates and committees. Such funds may not be used to support campaign activities, though candidates may donate up to $5,000 from their leadership PACs to their campaign committees, so long as they report it as an in-kind contribution with the FEC.
Bachmann's most recent presidential campaign filings do not list such a donation.
Bill McGinley, who is legal counsel for Bachmann and a lawyer with Patton Boggs, maintains the donation followed the rules.
"MICHELEPAC made a donation to the Polk County GOP because it supports the positions and activities of the county party," he said.
But MICHELEPAC's August donation to the Polk County GOP was used explicitly to pay for an Aug. 7 event at the Fort Des Moines Army Museum and Education Center, said Darrell Kearney, who is the group's senior financial officer, and who handles fundraising and events.
The get-together, which was billed as a "Road to the White House 2010" event, was exclusively for Bachmann, and was meant to make up for her absence at the group's annual Robb Kelley dinner on May 26, Kearney said. Bachmann advertised her event through emails from her presidential campaign.
"We agreed we would do another event with her if she was willing to pay for it, so that Polk County Republicans would have the opportunity to meet her since they didn't get to meet her in May," Kearney said.
Kevin McLaughlin, the Polk County GOP's chair, said it was a casual event.
"She pulled-in in her bus, she gave a great speech," he said. "What we're trying to do is to introduce people to [the candidates]."
McLaughlin estimates the Polk County GOP spent between $500 and $750 on the event. Admission was free, but donations made during the event went to the Polk County GOP, according to the invitation.
Bachmann was slated to headline the Robb Kelley dinner in May, but was delayed in Washington, D.C., voting on a renewal of the Patriot Act.
As a result, the Bachmann campaign agreed to reimburse the Polk County GOP for the money it lost on the Robb Kelley dinner due to her absence, Kearney said. That check arrived on July 13 and was issued from Bachmann's presidential campaign.
But it didn't cover all the group's losses on the dinner, "so [the campaign] had agreed to issue another check to help cover that expense plus pay for the summer rally at the Fort Des Moines Army Museum," Kearney said referring to the Aug. 7 event for Bachmann.
The second check for $5,000 arrived on Aug. 3, Kearney said. The check bears the name MICHELEPAC and has the same P.O. Box address registered with the FEC for Bachmann's leadership PAC, Kearney confirmed.
"That's a no-no," said Paul Ryan, who is associate legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center.
The initial $5,000 reimbursement that came from her campaign committee is not problematic, Ryan said.
"But the use of leadership PAC funds to pay for an event that benefited the candidate — that's very problematic," he said. "Leadership PACs by definition exist to help individuals other than the candidate or officeholder who sets them up."
Typically, such a donation wouldn't raise a red flag, said Donald Simon, who is a partner with the law firm Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Enderson and Perry, and is legal counsel for Democracy 21, a group that advocates for campaign finance reform.
"Contributions from a leadership PAC to a state or local party is kind of what leadership PACs do," he said.
If there's an understanding that the dollars are earmarked for what appears to be a campaign event, "that, I think, is a problem," he said.
Scott Thomas, who was an FEC commissioner between 1986 and 2006, said that MICHELEPAC could donate up to $5,000 to Bachmann's campaign, but that it should be recorded as an in-kind contribution with the FEC.
MICHELEPAC also contributed $5,000 to the New Hampshire Republican party in March, when Bachmann was still flirting with a run for the White House. The Belknap County Republican Committee, also located in New Hampshire, got $500 in September. And the PAC also donated $5,000 to the Minnesota Republican Party in February.
Leadership PACs allow donors to get around campaign contribution limits. Individuals can give up to $5,000 annually, in addition to donations to a candidate's campaign. And increasingly, they're used for travel, eating out, parties, gifts and other things that wouldn't appear related to politics, a 2009 investigation by ProPublica found.
"These things are really rogue entities," said Craig Holman who lobbies Congress for campaign finance reform for the government watchdog Public Citizen.