An article published today by Ken Vogel in Politico follows the latest developments in the Trump-Russia probe. Vogel reports, “a member of the Federal Election Commission is calling on the agency to investigate whether Russian agents paid for Facebook ads to spread damaging stories about Hillary Clinton ahead of last fall’s presidential election.
According to FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic appointee to the commission, “there is potential there for finding a violation.”
In December 2016, Free Speech For People filed a complaint with the FEC against Trump’s Russia ties, which the agency is considering investigating. The FEC is now being called upon to consider reports that Russian agents bought Facebook ads around Trump’s campaign.
While the FBI and congressional investigators are considering a wide range of legal violations, they have yet to narrow their focus. However, as Vogel points out:
The FEC, on the other hand, is charged exclusively with monitoring and enforcing the Federal Election Campaign Act. It bars foreign nationals, companies or governments from donating to U.S. campaign committees or from making expenditures “for the purpose of influencing” an election, and it also prohibits campaigns from coordinating with outside entities, including foreign ones.
If four commissioners vote to find reason to believe a violation may have occurred, the agency can begin issuing subpoenas and moving toward negotiating civil penalties, or possibly making criminal referrals to the Justice Department. (It’s also possible that the FBI could ask the FEC to stand down if the agencies’ investigations start overlapping.) Yet, even if the five current members of the FEC (there’s one vacancy) can’t muster the four votes — a scenario that has become increasingly common — the staff’s investigative report still becomes public, which could fuel additional scrutiny from Congress and the media.
And, if the complainants are unhappy with the results of the investigation or believe it’s taking too long, they’re able to sue the agency in court — a frequently used recourse that is not available in congressional and law enforcement investigations.
“The FEC has broad investigative powers to subpoena witnesses and documents, and compel testimony under oath,” said Ron Fein, legal director of Free Speech for People, one of the watchdog groups that filed the complaint that the FEC is investigating against Trump and Russia. “I don’t want to suggest that the FEC is a model of rapid enforcement, but this is possibly the single most important campaign finance investigation in the agency’s entire history, and this is its opportunity to rise to the challenge.”
The complaint by Fein’s group and the Campaign for Accountability alleges that Russia violated the foreign money ban when its state-run media outlets and social-media operations disseminated stories intended to boost Trump and damage Clinton. And the complaint contends that there is enough evidence for the FEC to investigate whether Trump’s associates violated campaign finance laws by coordinating with the Russians, which would run afoul of the coordination prohibition.
We will keep you updated on new developments with our FEC complaint and the investigation.
To read the article in full, click here.