Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) has acknowledged taking more than $5,500 in illegal campaign contributions from a seafood trade association since 2001, but he has informed federal officials he will only pay back a portion of those funds because some of the violations fall outside the statute of limitations for campaign finance violations.
In a June 28 letter to the Federal Election Commission, Young’s campaign treasurer, Robert Bohnert, disclosed that from 2001 to 2006, the Pacific Seafood Processors Association donated seafood for Young’s annual crab feed fundraiser in Washington, D.C. Young’s campaign also provided the FEC with a yearly estimate of the cost of the crabs — which qualified as an in-kind contribution by the association — totaling $5,583.06.
Under federal law, corporations — including trade associations — are barred from making political contributions to Members of Congress. Only political action committees, other campaigns, party campaign organs and individuals can give campaign contributions.
The letter comes as Young has reported spending more on legal fees in the second quarter than any current Member of Congress. According to his latest campaign finance report, Young has paid $262,138 to the law firms Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Tobin, O’Connor, Ewing & Richard.
Although Young himself has not been reported to be the official subject of a federal investigation, a number of his former aides and associates have been linked both to the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal and to a wide-ranging corruption probe in Alaska focused on the oil and fishing industries.
In the letter to the FEC, Bohnert — who claimed he had no “prior knowledge of these contributions” until an official with PSPA informed the campaign of them — offered to “rectify the situation by refunding the contributions for 2004, 2005 and 2006 to the PSPA. We will not refund earlier In-kind contributions for 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 because they were made before the three-year statute of limitations.”
The total reimbursement Young is willing to make amounts to $2,407.09.
But Bohnert’s reading of federal campaign finance laws could be flawed. Ken Gross, a campaign finance legal expert with the firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said the FEC has long imposed a five-year statute of limitations to civil violations. Additionally, Gross said the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 changed federal law to extend the old criminal statute of limitations from three years to five.
Gross said that campaign committees occasionally make mistakes with in-kind contributions, although those slip-ups generally occur with intangibles such as the use of a room for a fundraiser or an employee’s time.
“It does happen from time to time, usually when it involves the use of personnel or someone’s paid time,” he said.
But Gross said Young’s violation is “somewhat surprising,” since it is rare that campaign officials do not understand the rules when it comes to products, “because it’s definable” in terms of cost.
A Young spokesman did not return a call for comment by press time Tuesday.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.