By Andrew Kaczynski and Nathan McDermott, CNN
Rep. Mia Love’s campaign has informed the Federal Election Commission that it will refund or redesignate less than half of what the government says was more than a million dollars improperly raised for a primary that was never expected to happen, according to documents reviewed by CNN.
The commission sent Love a letter in August saying the Utah Republican’s campaign had violated federal guidelines about money for primaries. In Utah, candidates are not allowed to raise such funds if they have no primary, according to the FEC and experts specializing in election law. On Friday, Love’s campaign responded to regulators, telling the FEC they would refund or redesignate some, but not all, of that money.
In a statement issued to Fox 13 News in response, Mia Love’s campaign said they “strongly dispute the accusations in the CNN story”. The Love campaign provided a detailed counter-argument to the claims, which is embedded at the bottom of this story.
In April, Love secured the nomination to seek a third term for her seat in Utah’s 4th congressional district at Utah’s nominating convention. In Utah, if a candidate receives such a nomination at a convention, like Love did, then no primary is held. At no point prior to April’s convention did Love face a primary challenger or the threat of one.
But Love raised $1,153,624 and designated that money for a primary, according to the letter from the FEC to Love. Even after Love secured the nomination at the convention, she raised an additional $372,468 specifically designated for the primary that her campaign knew would not take place.
Experts say the money raised is a serious violation of FEC rules.
“It’s a big deal, it is a big deal,” said Ann Ravel, who served as FEC Commissioner under President Barack Obama. “If you’re raising primary funds and you have no primary, on its face, it does seem to be inappropriate and it’s a lot of money.”
The FEC’s letter to Love’s campaign described the problem with the primary funds and said the contributions would have to be refunded or designated for the general election. Redesignation is a process in which fundscan be moved to a general election fund, so long as it is done within 60 days of receiving the contribution.
But all of the donations to Love were made more than 60 days ago. FEC spokesman Christian Hilland could not comment on the specific case, but said that violating that 60-day rule could prompt penalties.
Love’s campaign lawyers responded on Friday to the FEC, saying they would refund or redesignate contributions, but only those received after she was nominated at the convention on April 21. Love’s campaign will have to notify donors their money is being moved to be used in the general election and those donors will be able to request refunds. If primary contributions received exceeded the maximum $2,700 donation allowed for a general election, then that money would need to be refunded.
“It seems clear that any contribution designated for the primary election received after the convention would have to be refunded or redesignated,” said Brendan Fischer, the director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, an organization that supports campaign finance reform. “I think there is an argument that, Mia Love knew earlier than the convention that it would be an uncontested primary, but their letter suggests there may have been some ambiguity. So they might be able to get away with it but it’s certainly problematic because of this sort of quirk in Utah law that allows a candidate to raise money above and beyond the federal limits that would apply in elections in almost any other state.”
The campaign told the FEC they would not be refunding the money that it received before the convention, citing a similar situation involving Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s 2016 re-election campaign.
In that case, Lee was allowed to keep money he raised for a primary that didn’t occur. That year, Lee raised money for a possible primary challenge, but he ended up as the only candidate with enough signatures to get on the ballot. In that instance, the FEC ruled Lee could keep his money because of the “unique facts” of the case in which he expected a primary challenge.
Love’s campaign, unlike Lee’s, however, appears to have not prepared for any primary challenger and Love ran unopposed and even Love’s lawyers admit the differences between the situations.
According to Paul S. Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation with government watchdog Common Cause, a key difference between Love and Lee is that Lee’s campaign worked as if it was expecting a primary challenger, and raised money accordingly, while Love’s campaign had no expectation of a primary challenger.
“It’s a really important factual distinction that makes Mia Love’s claim on this primary money even weaker than Mike Lee’s claim on it,” Ryan said. “I’m realizing after reading their response, reading a little bit more about the Mike Lee matter, that this is a more definitive attempt by the Love committee to game the contribution limits. That’s what it strikes me as now.”
In response to the FEC, lawyers for Love said they would have to get a further opinion from the FEC’s counsel or commissioners to see if the FEC would take the same opinion on their donations raised before the convention as Lee’s donations. They cited a conversation they had with an FEC election official when preparing their response where that official said the FEC’s response to Lee applied only to his specific case.
It is unclear if the FEC will accept Love’s rationale for keeping the pre-convention donations or will say all the money will have to be refunded or redesignated. Working in Love’s favor is that there are currently two vacant seats on the six-seat commission, so any decision would have to be unanimous.
“They are probably betting that there’s no way there are four votes on the FEC to come after them for this, that’s part of what’s in the background here,” Ryan said. “So I think they’re really pushing the boundaries of the law in order to game the contribution limits predicting that they will get away with it, and it’s like we have correct protection, but just because you can get away with something doesn’t make it right.”
Mia Love’s campaign responded to the report Monday and sent Fox 13 News this statement:
“We strongly dispute the accusations made in the CNN story. Here are the facts:
CNN omitted that Friends of Mia Love did prepare for a primary campaign by paying over $35,000 to gather signatures to be on the primary ballot.
They also omitted the fact that the FEC simply requested a response for information as to why funds were attributed to the Convention and the Primary elections and did not and have not said Friends of Mia Love broke any laws.
Furthermore, CNN can in no way show that there is any deviation between 2016 Friends of Mike Lee campaign and the Friends of Mia Love 2018 campaign in which the FEC stated that because of the “unique facts” of Utah’s nominating process “the committee (Friends of Mike Lee) had no choice but to prepare for both the primary election and the party convention at the same time because of the short time frame between the party convention and the primary election.” (See attached letter for more details.)
.The “unique facts” of the 2016 matter involving Senator Lee have not changed. Utah’s unusual primary ballot access laws were upheld by the Tenth Circuit regardless of what the Democrat party and national liberal reporters want to present to help Democrats take the House.
National reporters also do not understand that until, it was not known with certainty whether any challenger had qualified for the primary election ballot. Similarly, it was not known with certainty until– the date of the state party convention – that there would be no primary election at all.
The bias numbers reported by CNN are grossly exaggerated. Friends of Mia Love will contributions which were previously undesignated and then assigned to the primary election to the general election for donations received after April 21, 2018 – the date of the state convention- and before June 26, 2018- the date of the primary election. In total, Friends of Mia Love will about $370,000 and may refund under $10,000.” – Sasha Clark, Campaign Communications Director
Editor’s note: While the statement above appears to be missing several words, Fox 13 News has reproduced the statement exactly as received.