Does Sanders’ Accusation Against The DNC Hold Water? Campaign Finance Experts Weigh In

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SETH WENIG
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SETH WENIG

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has long accused the Democratic National Committee of bias toward his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Pointing to poorly scheduled debates, the super-delegate process, and preferential access to the party’s data, Sanders and his sympathizers have blasted the DNC for rigging the process against him.

Sanders unveiled a new accusation this week, pointing to “extremely serious concerns” about Clinton’s joint fundraising activities with the DNC. A letter from his attorney laid out the issue: the joint fundraising structure allows Clinton to accept much larger individual donations than her campaign is legally allowed to receive, and that money is then being used to send out mailers and online ads to raise money from smaller donors who can contribute directly to the campaign multiple times. The group has collected $33 million dollars so far.

These serious apparent violations should cease immediately.

“Bernie 2016 strongly believes that these serious apparent violations should cease immediately,” the letter concludes.

Clinton’s campaign fired back, calling the accusations “baseless” and slamming Sanders for “poisoning the well for Democratic candidates up and down the ticket.”

“Instead of trying to convince the next generation of progressives that the Democratic Party is corrupt, Senator Sanders should stick to the issues and think about what he can do to help the Party he is seeking to lead,” said Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook.

The Hillary Victory Fund, the campaign’s joint effort with the DNC and 32 state Democratic parties, is swimming in uncharted legal waters. This type of fundraising only became legal in 2014, when the Supreme Court eliminated some of the few remaining protections in our campaign finance system in McCutcheon v. FEC, allowing wealthy individuals to pour an unlimited amount of money into a single campaign cycle.

Sanders signed a similar joint fundraising deal with the DNC last year, but has barely used it, relying instead on building a massive database of small donors.

“The DNC offered to engage in the same joint fundraising efforts with all the major presidential candidates early in the cycle,” DNC national press secretary Mark Paustenbach told ThinkProgress. “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.”

So do Sanders’ accusations hold water? The campaign finance experts who spoke to ThinkProgress said while they find Clinton’s activities unethical, they are likely not illegal.

It is permissible, but it’s offensive, and it should be illegal.

“This is the type of mega, mega joint fundraising committee that we all feared would come into existence if McCutcheon were ruled the wrong way, which it was,” said Craig Holman with Public Citizen. “It makes maximum use of the loose rules governing joint fundraising. They’re using big checks to set up a small donor fundraising campaign and turning over the small donors to the Hillary campaign while keeping the large ones for the party. It is permissible, but it’s offensive, and it should be illegal.”

Both Holman and Larry Noble with the Campaign Legal Center emphasized that it’s extremely unusual and possibly unprecedented for a party to raise so much money for a candidate before the general election.

“It shows the DNC has clearly taken sides before they even have a nominee,” said Holman. “There’s an obvious bias.”

Noble agreed. “They really are throwing their weight behind a particular candidate,” he said. “Their argument is usually that it helps the party generally, but the practical and legal reality is that it benefits Hillary Clinton. You just don’t expect this kind of thing to happen in the primaries.”

Noble added that even if there were a legal violation in Clinton’s fundraising — for example, exceeding limits for in-kind donations from the DNC to her campaign — the gridlocked Federal Elections Commissions will not do anything to put a stop to it.

“The FEC is not known to be a functional agency anymore and we’re seeing the effect of that,” he said. “People are pushing the envelope further and further, until it shreds.”

Yet Rick Hasen, a professor of election law at the University of California, Irvine, calls Sanders’ accusations “legally…weak” and strategically foolish.

“It is quite odd for Sanders, who would need the DNC’s support to win the presidency should he be the Democratic nominee, to be attacking the DNC,” he wrote. “Then again, Trump has relentlessly attacked the RNC, so this must be the celebration of the season.”