News & Observer: ‘Take this envelope, put money in here.’ GOP leader’s comments to donors get scrutiny
By Paul A. Specht
August 27, 2018
The chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party faces criticism for comments he made at a recent campaign fundraiser, where some say he misrepresented campaign finance laws and possibly forecast his intentions to break them.
Robin Hayes, chairman of the NC GOP, spoke at the fundraiser for U.S. Rep. David Rouzer at the Figure 8 Yacht Club in Wilmington on Aug. 10 when he asked attendees to donate to the party organization to help Rouzer.
“This is an envelope. You have heard things that should inspire you to dig deep tonight. But federal law says you can only give, you and your wife, $5,200 to David Rouzer,” Hayes says in the recording. Rouzer then corrects him to say the individual federal spending limit is $5,400 per year.
“But you can take this envelope, put money in here and give it to your friend and citizen, Robin Hayes, who happens to be party chair and I can take unlimited money and put it to his campaign, legally,” Hayes said.
Hayes’ comments raise questions about his plans for the money and whether he intentionally misled potential donors.
Federal campaign finance laws prohibit state organizations from earmarking general donations for specific candidates and do, in fact, limit the amount of money that individuals can donate to the state party. Party organizations are also limited to $5,000 per candidate per election.
So Hayes’ comment about taking unlimited money is inaccurate, says Daniel Weiner, senior counsel to the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program.
“First of all, Hayes cannot take unlimited money to spend on federal elections,” Weiner said in an phone interview, referring to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act.
“His statement is not an accurate reflection of the law,” he said. “You can’t just raise unlimited funds for federal elections if you’re a party chair. That’s pretty basic. They’re also prohibited from soliciting unlimited funds.”
However, the GOP likely erred by soliciting funds for a joint fundraising committee that hasn’t been created with the U.S. Federal Election Commission, Kolker said in a phone interview.
“You have to set it all up ahead of time. They have to create a committee, register it with the FEC and say how they’ll divvy (the money) up,” Kolker said, referring to FEC regulations.
Woodhouse’s explanation aside, Kolker said he interpreted Hayes’ comments “to mean he’s going to coordinate with the campaign when he spends it, and that’s a huge red flag. Not a dime can be used for that purpose.”
He suspects the GOP, with its explanation, is “sloppily trying to reinvent history to comply with the law.”
The NC Democratic Party is likely to file a complaint, according to spokesman Robert Howard.
“These comments clearly show that the Republican Party is earmarking funds for specific candidates, a serious violation that should be fully investigated,” Howard said in an email.
“Facing a groundswell of voters frustrated by Republican efforts to undermine protections for pre-existing conditions and to rig our economy at the expense of working families, Republicans are resorting to breaking election law to get their wealthy donors to save them,” he continued. “It won’t work.”
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola University Law School, interpreted Hayes’ comments the same way Kolker did.
“He’s pushing the line. He’s basically like ‘here’s how we could funnel money’,” Levinson said. “You can’t use your ability to donate to the party as a pure loophole around direct contribution limits.”
But she doesn’t think the FEC will act.
“You don’t just need a smoking gun. You need a smoking gun and a Molotov cocktail,” she said, referring to the crude improvised explosive device often made with glass bottles and burning rags. “My guess is, without more, nothing really happens.”