While hitting the campaign trail in Iowa earlier this month, former Florida governor and current Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush said in a radio interview, “We just started to advertise — actually the Right to Rise PAC started to advertise, not our campaign.”
His confusion is understandable. The line between Bush’s official campaign and nominally independent super PAC have found many ways — some of them of questionable legality — to work in concert in the 2016 race, safe in the knowledge that a gridlocked Federal Election Commission (FEC) has publicly declared they are unable to enforce campaign finance law.
Buried in the most recent round of FEC filings is evidence Bush’s Right to Rise super PAC paid the firm Wisecup Consulting LLC at least $16,000 this April and May for “political strategy consulting,” while the campaign paid the same firm about $60,000 for the exact same service — despite the two entities being legally barred from any coordination. Additionally, Wisecup Consulting’s founder and president Trent Wisecup, is serving as the campaign’s director of strategy, and has helped Bush prepare for debates and write his new e-book, among other contributions. Such an arrangement would be legal only if a strict, documented firewall is in place to prevent information sharing, but the Jeb Bush campaign did not respond to ThinkProgress’ inquiries as to whether such protections exist. ThinkProgress made multiple attempts to reach Wisecup and his company but could not do so at press time.
A veteran Republican strategist, Wisecup is perhaps best known for a viral video of him berating an anti-war activist as “un-American” while working as a staffer for Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI) — an episode that resulted in him taking medical leave. He has also worked on PR campaigns for General Motors, Wal-Mart, the cigarette conglomerate Philip Morris, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
“What you have here is strong evidence of coordination,” Campaign Legal Center general counsel Larry Noble told ThinkProgress. “It’s very hard for a strategist to divide up his brain and say, ‘I’ll only think about the super PAC today,’ and then switch gears and only think about the campaign the next day. This is a very big deal, because the super PAC has raised so much money, donations in amounts that couldn’t be made to a campaign, but if there’s coordination it would essentially make them illegal contributions to the campaign. At the very least this warrants a serious investigation.”
This is far from the first time Jeb Bush has tested the legal limits of a post-Citizens United world.
In March, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 accused Bush, Martin O’Malley, Rick Santorum, and Scott Walker of skirting federal campaign finance laws by soliciting unlimited money for their campaigns before formally launching them. Bush has also made time to film videos for his super PAC which they later used as ads.
Bush’s campaign and super PAC have also paid the same data firm — Digital Core Campaign — for various services, though its founder Andy Barkett has insisted the company has “procedures in place to ensure that we comply with all regulations.”
Right to Rise USA’s spokesperson Paul Lindsey has also said the super PAC will “comply with all FEC rules and regulations,” but Noble and other campaign finance experts say they’re not confident either that super PACs will obey the law or that the government will hold them to account.
“We have filed several complaints with the FEC, and we haven’t seen anything happen,” he told ThinkProgress. “Each day that goes on, the campaigns get bolder and bolder ignoring the law. We basically have a presidential election that is going completely unregulated. It’s an arms race, and until the FEC steps in and says it’s illegal, it’s not going to stop.”
Adam Smith with the watchdog group Every Voice added that the new evidence of coordination goes against the framework the Supreme Court put forward in the Citizens United ruling, which led to the rise of super PACs taking unlimited donations.
“Citizens United said outside groups can’t corrupt campaigns because they’re independent, but what we’ve seen is that they are anything but independent,” Smith said. “They’re run by friends, family, former staff. And because you could drive a truck through the holes in the coordination laws, candidates are getting away with a lot. Jeb’s campaign in particular has taken the lax rules around coordination to an extreme we haven’t seen before.”
Yet Bush is far from the only candidate in the 2016 race to engage in campaign finance shenanigans. Even Donald Trump, who often boasts of being so wealthy that he does not need outside support, was recently revealed to be dancing close to the line of coordination with the Make America Great Again PAC. The Washington Post reported this week that, like Bush, Trump’s super PAC is paying a consultant, Mike Ciletti, who is also working as a vendor for the official campaign, and has close relationships with many staffers.