Is Bernie Sanders Right About The Hillary Victory Fund? He Made Accusations Of Campaign "Violations"
There's been an undeniable tonal shift between Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton as the 2016 primary election season has pressed on. The candidates have sharpened their criticisms of one another, and the jabs between them now flow with increasing frequency. On Monday, the Sanders campaign accused Clinton and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) of violating campaign finance laws through the Hillary Victory Fund, their joint fundraising effort that raises money for both Clinton and for Democratic down-ballot candidates. Is Sanders right about the Hillary Victory Fund?
First, we'll need to parse the allegations. On April 18, Brad Deutsch, a lawyer for the Sanders campaign, sent an open letter to DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, expressing Sanders' concerns regarding the joint fundraising effort. In a nutshell, Deutsch claimed that the joint committee is able to accept much larger amounts of money than an individual campaign, and that big-money contributions are being used to fund campaign efforts that benefit Clinton:
Bernie 2016 is particularly concerned that these extremely large-dollar individual contribution have been used by the Hillary Victory Fund to pay for more than $7.8 million in direct mail efforts and over $8.6 million in online advertising, both of which appear to benefit only HFA [Hillary for America] by generating low-dollar contributions that flow only to HFA, rather than to the DNC or any of the participating state party committees.
Clinton's campaign manager, Robby Mook, called the allegations false and irresponsible, and released a statement that said, "This latest incident is part of a troubling pattern of behavior in which Sanders and his team are not just debating us on issues (which we all agree is perfectly fair), but rather attacking Hillary Clinton’s character, integrity, and motivations."
ThinkProgress reported that the Hillary Victory Fund includes the Clinton campaign, the DNC, and 32 state Democratic parties. The fundraising effort is designed to raise money not only for the campaign, but for the Democratic Party as well.
In response to Sanders' letter, the DNC's national press secretary, Mark Paustenback, told ThinkProgress: "The DNC offered to engage in the same joint fundraising efforts with all the major presidential candidates early in the cycle. We welcome the efforts of the candidates to help raise money for the DNC and state parties now to ensure we can build out the infrastructure to win in November." Sanders himself actually also signed off on a joint fundraising effort with the DNC in November, but has not used it much.
Sanders has yet to specifically address how he himself signed up for a joint fundraising committee with the DNC, which may weaken the argument that there is bias toward Clinton. However, in January, Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs claimed to The Washington Post, "We remain happy to work with them. The party hasn't given us any dates for events."
Legal experts have been weighing in with more detailed arguments, though they don't all come to the same conclusions. Lawyer, professor, and overall election law expert Rick Hasen explained on his personal blog that the joint fundraising efforts appear to be legal, explaining how the joint fundraising intake is distributed: "A small bit goes to the candidate’s committee under the federal limits (currently $2,700 for the primary and $2,700 for the general). The next bit goes to the DNC, and the rest to state parties in $10,000 chunks." In Hasen's explanation of current campaign finance laws, there is nothing that says the joint fundraising committee cannot use big-money contributions to fund small-money donor efforts for an individual campaign.
According to ThinkProgress, Larry Noble of the Campaign Legal Center questioned the ethics of the fundraising effort. He said of the DNC: "They really are throwing their weight behind a particular candidate. Their argument is usually that it helps the party generally, but the practical and legal reality is that it benefits Hillary Clinton."
If the Sanders campaign feels its accusation has solid legal footing to stand on, it will likely proceed to talks with the Federal Elections Commission, which has legal authority regarding campaign finance matters. The apparent aim of the open letter to the DNC was to place political pressure on the DNC and the Clinton campaign. As of Tuesday, they don't seem to be swayed.