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An undercover operative for a conservative group likely violated rules against foreign campaign contributions while seeking to show Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was willing to break those same rules, the Federal Election Commission concluded.
The FEC said in newly released documents that Laura Loomer, an employee of Project Veritas Action, appeared to violate campaign finance rules by taking money from a Canadian national to buy Clinton campaign merchandise.
An analysis written by the FEC general counsel’s office and unanimously backed by the agency’s commissioners accused Loomer of “knowingly providing substantial assistance to a foreign national in making a contribution.” However, the FEC said it wouldn’t seek any penalties in the case because of the small amount of money involved.
Loomer, described as an “undercover journalist,” took money from an unidentified Canadian and used it to purchase Clinton swag at a campaign event, according to a video of the incident released last year on YouTube by Project Veritas Action. The conservative group claimed the video showed the Clinton campaign wanted to accept illegal foreign money. Project Veritas Action sought to publicize this and other anti-Clinton videos during last year’s presidential campaign.
The FEC said Clinton’s campaign may also have violated the law by accepting a foreign contribution in the depicted transaction. It was unclear, however, how much campaign officials may have known about the contribution, the FEC said.
The FEC released documents in two enforcement matters dealing with the episode, designated Matters Under Review (MURs) 6962 and 6982.
The FEC counsel’s office concluded the matters weren’t worth pursuing in a full investigation because of the “very small” amount of money involved. Loomer gave the Clinton campaign $75 for merchandise, with only $35 or $45 coming from the Canadian, the FEC documents said.
The documents noted there was no information that Clinton or Project Veritas Action head James O’Keefe were directly involved in the episode.
The newly released enforcement documents are among more than a dozen matters involving alleged foreign campaign money that FEC officials say have been pending at the agency since last year’s presidential campaign. Little is known about the details and status of pending matters, which are required by FEC rules to be handled in strict secrecy.
Attention has been focused on the issue of foreign influence in U.S. elections mainly by reports from U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia sought to intervene in the 2016 election to help elect President Donald Trump and allegations that Trump’s campaign may have colluded with the Russians. Recent news reports about a meeting the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., held with Russian representatives has led to even more new enforcement complaints.
The FEC, however, is deeply divided along partisan lines and has yet to signal what, if anything, it will do about the Trump-Russia matters. The commissioners have agreed to expedite handling of enforcement cases dealing with alleged foreign influence, but few new foreign influence cases have been revealed by the FEC, so far.
The FEC has civil enforcement authority over federal campaign finance laws, including the responsibility to determine which, if any, of these laws may have been violated. In the past, however, the FEC often has deferred action if the Justice Department is pursuing criminal campaign finance charges on a matter that is also being investigated by the FEC.
The Trump-Russia matter is being handled by a special counsel, Robert Mueller, in place of the DOJ. Mueller, a former FBI director, could ask the FEC to defer any action on related matters. Mueller took over the Russia probe from the DOJ following widespread condemnation of Trump’s move to fire FBI Director James Comey and Trump’s subsequent comments that he fired Comey because of concerns about the FBI’s handling of the Russia matter.
Mueller’s office would appear to have jurisdiction over any criminal violation of campaign finance laws in the Trump-Russia matter, while the FEC would retain civil enforcement authority. Whether and how the FEC and Mueller might sort out their roles in investigating and deciding whether laws were violated remains to be seen, though each entity has the legal authority to operate independently of the other, experts said.
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