Washington — Maybe Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal just got lucky with his timing.
Or maybe he doesn’t think he’s breaking any federal laws on raising and spending money for a presidential campaign. Or maybe he’ll argue that everyone else is doing it, too. Or maybe he doesn’t much care, figuring that by the time any investigation runs its course, he’ll either be comfortably ensconced in the Oval Office or a fading memory from the 2016 election cycle.
Early last week, the non-partisan, nonprofit Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission asserting violations of the rules governing presidential contenders by Republicans Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Rick Santorum and Democrat Martin O’Malley.
None of the four has acknowledged he is a candidate for the White House. Had they done so, they would be subject to tight restrictions on the source of the money they use to campaign: No more than $2,700 per contributor, and that only from individual donors, not corporations or labor unions. Those restrictions also apply to anyone “testing the waters” for a run.
Notwithstanding their reticence, the CLC says the four men are, in actuality, in the hunt.
“These 2016 presidential contenders must take the American people for fools — flying repeatedly to Iowa and New Hampshire to meet with party leaders and voters, hiring campaign staff, and raising millions of dollars from deep-pocketed mega donors, all the while denying that they are even ‘testing the waters’ of a presidential campaign,” Paul S. Ryan of the CLC said in a news release.
Sound familiar? That description could easily be applied to Jindal, too. Almost simultaneously with the CLC announcement, news accounts reported that Jindal was assembling a staff in Iowa, home to the Feb. 1 caucuses that kick off the presidential nomination process.
Jindal has not formally declared his candidacy: He has said he will announce his decision after June 11, the end of the upcoming legislative session in Louisiana. His political adviser, Timmy Teepell, said in an email that Jindal is not even testing the waters, but simply “promoting free-market ideas and conservative values.”
The legal center may not buy that. “We are looking closely at it and very well may file a complaint against Mr. Jindal in the coming weeks,” Ryan said. Other candidates, of either party, may be added to the list as well, he said.
Last week’s complaint was the first of its type the center has filed in 13 years in operation. “The behavior has become so egregious in this cycle that we couldn’t resist,” Ryan said.
The only declared candidate for the White House is U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Some others, from both parties, have said they are testing the waters.
By avoiding an official announcement, Jindal can seek to retain the freedom to encourage unlimited donations to the Believe Again super PAC that some of his close associates set up this year to boost his presidential ambitions — something he couldn’t do under the candidate rules.
He also can work closely with the super PAC and with America Next, the nonprofit that serves as a policy platform for Jindal, its honorary chairman. Both organizations can accept unlimited contributions from almost any source and spend them on behalf of anyone’s election, so long as they don’t coordinate their activities with an actual candidate.
The super PAC must disclose its donors and expenditures to the FEC, but the first reporting deadline is yet to come. America Next need do neither, which is why such organizations are called “dark money” groups.
The CLC is eyeing potential violations of the no-coordination rule, Ryan said. It may note that among the Jindal team reportedly heading to Iowa is Jill Neunaber, the executive director of America Next, who managed the 2012 Iowa campaign of Republican Mitt Romney. That information came from Gail Gitcho, another former Romney aide now with Believe Again.
The FEC is unlikely to investigate the complaint, Ryan said: Three of the six commissioners are Republicans who have shown no interest in violations by either party, and they can block action. But that leaves the option of a lawsuit against the commission itself, he said.
To the legal center, it’s a fight worth making. Even the U.S. Supreme Court, which in recent years has struck down many of the fundraising restrictions imposed after the 1970s Watergate scandal and the “soft money” controversy of 15 years ago, has affirmed the corrupting influence of unlimited contributions to candidates, Ryan said.
Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and is on Twitter @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of national government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.