“Federal regulators are probing financial reporting discrepancies stemming from an effort to funnel $75 million through state Republican parties to the national GOP effort to reelect Donald Trump,” Axios reported last week.
The article focused on actions taken by the Trump Victory Committee — a joint fundraising committee for the Trump presidential campaign, the Republican National Committee, and various state Republican committees. It appears that Trump Victory routed large sums of money to state GOP committees, which in turn reported sending identical amounts of money to the RNC.
The transfers appear to be an attempt to evade individual contribution limits to the RNC, which is allowed to take in $36,500 per donor per two-year election cycle. However, let’s say the Trump Victory Committee transferred, in a hypothetical example, $10,000 from one individual donor to 10 state committees which then sent the money on to the RNC. Voila, that individual just became a $100,000 donor to the RNC, or about 3 times more than is legally allowed.
Even that would be legal — like just about every obviously sleazy dark money transfer in U.S. politics — if the money had really gone to the state committee bank accounts before being sent to the RNC. However, based on Axios‘s reporting, and campaign finance documents I’ve reviewed, it looks like Trump Victory may have skipped the step of having the state Republican parties actually control the money even for a minute – or to bother to inform them that bank accounts had been set up in their name. (That’s why Axios ran the story under the headline, “Scoop: Trump campaign boosted by unsuspecting state GOPs.”)
Indeed, it appears that Trump Victory told the state committees about the transfers after the fact, and only to allow them to belatedly disclose the transfers. Last time I checked, taking money out of someone else’s bank account without their permission was a crime.
“The Federal Election Commission (FEC) asked the Republican Party of New Mexico last month to explain why it initially failed to report more than $550,000 in payments in September from Trump Victory and to the RNC,” Axios reported. “The state party replied it wasn’t until about six weeks after the fact that ‘information was received’ regarding those transfers.”
Which leads to privately held Chain Bridge Bank, a financial institution founded in 2007 by a retired Illinois senator, Peter Fitzgerald, which has long specialized in discreetly transferring campaign money, mostly but not exclusively, to GOP entities and candidates. Chain Bridge Bank’s one branch is located in McLean, Virginia, not far from the CIA, though that’s probably just a coincidence. For more about Chain Bridge, check out this 2011 article, “One Bank’s Business Built on GOP Cash,” or this one from 2015, “Where Candidates Stash Their Cash; Republican presidential candidates love to park their campaign money at a Virginia bank with one branch.”
Another story, published by Independent Banker in 2016, reported that the presidential campaigns of Trump, Jeb Bush and Rand Paul all had accounts with Chain Bridge Bank, as did Super PACs representing Bush, Ben Carson and other candidates, not to mention various House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns and committees. “More than just a safe place to stash the millions raised and quickly spent by political campaigns, Chain Bridge Bank understands the needs of high-speed, high-pressure political operations and has a special unit catering to those accounts,” the story said.
Trump Victory had an account at Chain Bridge Bank. So did the RNC and so did several (if not all) of the state Republican parties involved in the transfers. If Chain Bridge Bank were complicit in this – which seems highly likely – the Comptroller of the Currency could revoke its charter, which means a key bank for the Republican Party could get the death penalty.
New Mexico wasn’t the only state GOP party to make transfers to the RNC without its knowledge. On April 11, the FEC wrote the Illinois Republican Party to say, “Your amended report discloses an increase in receipts totaling $90,215.23 and an increase in disbursements totaling $90,215.23 from the amounts disclosed on your original report. Please amend your report or provide clarifying information as to why this activity was not disclosed on your original report.” The FEC gave the Illinois state party until May 17 to reply.
On April 13, the FEC sent a similar letter to the North Dakota GOP state party, asking it to explain previously undisclosed identical receipts and disbursements totaling $44,355.79. The following day the FEC wrote the Rhode Island GOP a letter asking about previously unreported transfers to the RNC of $251,771.78.
All told, between 3 cases identified by Axios and 3 identified here, the FEC has inquired about unreported receipts and disbursements of more than $3 million. Hawaii, with unreported transfers of about $1.7 million, led the pack.
Incidentally, all of these shady moves can be traced back to 2014, when the Supreme Court eliminated “some obscure but important campaign contribution limits” in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, as Politico reported here. The article is headlined, “Soft Money Is Back — And Both Parties Are Cashing In; Critics deride the practice as ‘legalized money laundering’.”
Writing in dissent in the McCutcheon decision, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said the ruling “creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign,” adding that it “eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws.”
Sure enough, the Trump Victory Committee as well as the tragically misnamed Hillary Victory Fund both ruthlessly exploited the loophole during the 2016 campaign.
Will the FEC or the Comptroller do anything about this apparent breach of campaign finance law and potential wrongdoing by Chain Bridge Bank? Hey, this is Washington, so everyone involved will probably skate.