Politics

Campaigns Aren’t Equipped to Vet Donors

Contributions from white supremacists have slipped through in the past

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign donated to charity money it received from a white supremacist leader in 2015. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As the past week has reaffirmed, most congressional candidates don’t want to be associated with white supremacists.

But when it comes to campaign donations, candidates have little control over who supports them. It’s easy enough for politicians to donate to charity or refund contributions from controversial sources. The hard part is finding them.

Congressional campaigns don’t vet most of their donors — it’d be an impossible job. 

“It’s one of thorniest issues we have,” said a campaign compliance consultant. “Most campaigns don’t have the resources to do it to the degree they need to,” she added. 

In the aftermath of a racially motivated 2015 shooting at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, many Republican campaigns refunded or donated checks received from a white supremacist leader who had apparently influenced the shooter. 

Earl Holt III, the president of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a Missouri-based organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a white supremacist group, gave $65,000 to GOP campaigns over several campaign cycles.

Among the recipients were the 2016 presidential campaigns of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and some of the political action committees supporting them. 

All of those campaigns donated the money they’d received from Hurt when asked about it by The Guardian in late June 2015. Holt also gave money to the campaigns of Iowa Rep. Steve King, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, and former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. He donated to two black Republicans, Utah Rep. Mia Love and former Florida Rep. Allen B. West.

The campaigns condemned Holt’s rhetoric after his donations came to light, but it’s not clear any of them knew who Holt was when his money came in. 

That’s because thorough vetting is rare, and even when it’s done, it’s tricky.

All campaigns vet donors if their names will appear on a fundraising invitation. But those are usually major donors the candidates already know well.

Presidential campaigns — the major ones, at least — devote more resources to vetting large donors. Senate campaigns typically vet donations over a certain threshold, although sometimes it’s the party campaign committees that do that. And House campaigns, depending on their size, generally lack the resources to do much comprehensive vetting at all.

Even when campaigns do vet, it’s never clear-cut. People with the same name complicate the process.

And the vetting of ideologues is especially difficult, said the compliance consultant, especially when there isn’t necessarily a public record that would make their views readily apparent. It’s not as if donors’ occupation, which are itemized on FEC reports, always give a good indication of their beliefs. Holt was listed as a “slumlord” on several FEC entries, according to The Guardian. 

Timing is always a question, too. “You can vet somebody on Monday and by Tuesday afternoon, your vet is totally invalid,” the compliance consultant said. 

Nefarious ties aren’t the only reason for a campaign to vet donors. If a candidate’s spouse works for a regulatory agency, for example, the campaign will vet donors to make sure it’s not taking money from people the spouse regulates. 

Once campaigns receive a check, they have a 10-day window to either deposit or return it. Returning, rather than refunding, a check is preferable because it won’t show up in an FEC report. But the increasing prevalence of credit card transactions, which are cleared nightly, and online conduits can make it hard for campaigns to keep up with the money coming in, especially the small-dollar donations.

Sometimes, it’s the candidates themselves who need to have better vetted the recipients of their own cash. Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte and his wife each gave $170 to a 2016 state legislative candidate whom watchdog groups consider a white nationalist. 

“I was unaware of some of his views and we supported him because we supported all (Republican) candidates in the last election,” Gianforte said in May when The Missoulian asked him about the donation. 

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