A leading campaign finance group filed a complaint on Thursday asking federal authorities to investigate charges that a super PAC supporting Donald Trump solicited cash from an overseas party for the purpose of influencing the U.S. presidential election.
In a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission, the Campaign Legal Center said it had reviewed complete copies of videos captured by undercover reporters that reportedly show top members of Great America PAC, a pro-Trump political group, soliciting $2 million from a Chinese national.
The wealthy Chinese businessman was not real—he was invented by undercover reporters who said they reached out to groups supporting both Trump and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns. According to the Telegraph, which published the story exclusively on Monday evening, the pro-Clinton organizations never responded to reporters’ inquiries about funneling foreign cash into the U.S. election.
But Great America PAC, a group that says it seeks to “build a grassroots wall of support around Donald Trump,” aggressively pursued the $2 million, said it would be used to launch pro-Trump advertisements on television, and promised that it would buy the fictitious Chinese benefactor influence with a future President Trump. The benefactor’s name would be “whispered into Mr. Trump’s ear,” the undercover reporters were told.
“It will likely be a few years before we get a sense of what the FEC will do with this.”
Great America PAC was founded this year by William Doddridge, CEO of the Jewelry Exchange, one the nation’s biggest jewelry companies. Citing Trump’s “business acumen,” Doddridge told Politico in January that he founded the committee so his “friends and colleagues who want to get involved supporting Donald Trump” would have a way to do so. According to the committee’s website, Stanley Hubbard, chairman of Hubbard Broadcasting, and Doug Lebda, founder of LendingTree, are also co-chairs.
In one recording, Jesse Benton, a former chief strategist at Great America PAC, is heard describing how he would disguise the origin of the contribution: The Chinese benefactor’s $2 million would be funneled through his own consulting firm. Benton’s company would then donate the $2 million to two 501(c)(4s), which would in turn forward the money to the super PAC. While the source of the donation would be kept anonymous, the undercover reporters were assured that Trump would be made aware of the secret contribution.
Great America PAC, its co-chairman Eric Beach, and former chief strategist Jesse Benton violated the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) by soliciting contributions from a foreign national, the Campaign Legal Center said in its FEC complaint. The FEC is required to initiate an investigation if, after receiving a complaint, it “has reason to believe that a person has committed, or is about to commit,” a violation of FECA.
“After viewing the recordings, it is clear Mr. Benton and Mr. Beach were soliciting an illegal contribution and explaining how to launder the foreign money to the super PAC to avoid detection,” Larry Noble, general counsel for Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement.
The FEC declined to comment on the complaint citing confidentiality requirements in connection with ongoing enforcement cases. “I cannot comment on matters that are or will be before the agency,” an FEC official said.
Benton, a former campaign chairman to retired Texas Rep. Ron Paul (R), was convicted in May on charges of campaign bribery. Alongside Paul campaign manager John Tate and deputy manager Dimitrios Kesari, Benton reportedly arranged for payments totaling $73,125 to be funneled to an Iowa state senator in exchange for his endorsement during Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign.
The Campaign Legal Center asserts that Benton knowingly and willfully solicited contributions meant to influence the 2016 presidential election. Beach is accused of the same, having seemingly acknowledged the illicit nature of the contribution and suggested it be funneled through a “social welfare organization,” i.e., Benton’s own company. According to the Telegraph, Beach assured the undercover reporters that the contribution would remain anonymous, and that the Chinese benefactor was “going to get credit” for the $2 million.
“[W]hen it comes to foreign money, it doesn’t particularly matter that the offer came from undercover reporters,” Brendan Fischer, an associate counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, told the Daily Dot. “The law prohibits both a foreign national from making a contribution (directly or indirectly) and any person from soliciting or recommending a foreign national to make a contribution. Here, the Great America PAC officials encouraged a foreign national to make an illegal contribution by developing a daisy chain scheme to help a Chinese businessman evade both disclosure requirements and the foreign national contribution ban.”
While noting it is impossible to know exactly how much dark money political spending in recent elections has come from foreign sources, Fischer admitted he’d never seen like this before. “This investigation revealed that shady political operators will happily route foreign money through entities that don’t publicly disclose their donors,” he said, adding: “I would guess this is not an isolated case.”
“The FEC won’t comment on whether it is conducting an investigation until they actually close the investigation,” Fischer said. “So it will likely be a few years before we get a sense of what the FEC will do with this.”
Read the Campaign Legal Center’s full FEC complaint below: