A conservative nonprofit has filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Hillary Clinton campaign of violating election laws when it paid British citizen Christopher Steele to gather Kremlin-provided political dirt on candidate Donald Trump.
Though not stated outright, the lawsuit argues that Democrats violated an admonition issued last week by Federal Election Commission Chairman Ellen L. Weintraub. She decreed that political campaigns cannot accept “anything of value” from foreign nationals.
The lawsuit from The Coolidge Reagan Foundation says the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee accepted something of a value from a foreign national, Mr. Steele, in the form of Kremlin anti-Trump smut.
The suit’s purpose is to persuade a federal judge to order the FEC to vote on whether to open a formal investigation. Coolidge Reagan filed an FEC complaint in August. It was accepted for review, but there has been no formal commission action, according to Dan Backer, the foundation’s founder and president.
Ms. Weintraub issued her warning on June 13 after President Trump told ABC News that he would listen to foreign allegations against a political appointment.
“Let me make something 100% clear to the American public and anyone running for public office: It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election,” said Ms. Weintraub, a Democrat. “This is not a novel concept. Electoral intervention from foreign governments has been considered unacceptable since the beginnings of our nation.”
Ms. Weintraub pinned the statement to her Twitter page, with the headline “I would not have thought that I needed to say this.”
The Coolidge Reagan Foundation said that during the 2016 election, Democrats did precisely what Ms. Weintraub described.
“The Clinton campaign, not Trump, collaborated with the Russians in a desperate, and ultimately failed, attempt to steal the election,” says the August 2018 complaint. It names Mr. Steele, the Clinton campaign, the DNC and Perkins Coie, the Democrats’ law firm, as respondents.
“I think Weintraub is full of hot air,” Mr. Backer told The Washington Times. “I mean after all, she’s very serious about Trump’s comment but she hasn’t done anything about our complaint.
A FEC spokesman told The Times: “A provision of the federal statute prohibits me from commenting on an enforcement matter that has not been closed by the agency.”
The Perkins Coie law firm didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A review by The Washington Times didn’t find any Weintraub criticism of Democrats having paid Mr. Steele to collect foreign political dirt.
In 2017, Perkins Coie acknowledged Democratic funding of Mr. Steele’s dossier after Rep. Devin Nunes of California, top Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, subpoenaed bank records.
Mr. Steele, a former British intelligence officer, filled his 35-page dossier with now-debunked conspiracy charges against candidate Trump. Mr. Steele quoted Kremlin intelligence sources as saying Mr. Trump was a spy for Russia and financed its hacking of Democratic Party computers.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation found no such conspiracy.
Mr. Steele’s $168,000 payment came from the Clinton campaign and DNC, funneled through Perkins Coie, to their opposition research firm Fusion GPS, for whom Mr. Steele worked. Clinton operatives spread the dirt among journalists and Obama administration officials.
“[Hillary for America] and the DNC paid Christopher Steele, a foreign national, to generate the Steele dossier, based primarily on lies and fabrications from current and former Russian government officials and other foreign nationals,” the Coolidge Reagan lawsuit states. “To mask their key role in funding the dossier, HFA and the DNC funneled their payments through their law firm, Perkins Coie, and failed to properly report the purposes of those payments to the FEC as required by federal law.”
The six-member FEC is made up of no more than three same-party commissioners. There are currently four commissioners, a Democrat, a Democrat-leaning independent and two Republicans. All four votes are needed to open an inquiry.
When appointed to the FEC in 2002, Ms. Weintraub practiced election law at Perkins Coie.
Mr. Backer said the old association would not prevent her from acting since the law firm wouldn’t have been handling the Steele dossier issue 17 years ago.
Ms. Weintraub was nominated to the Senate by President George W. Bush along with a Republican nominee. Senate Republican and Democratic leaders typically recommend commissioners to the White House.
The Coolidge-Reagan complaint cites what it considers three violations of election laws by the Clinton campaign.
First, the foundation alleges that the campaign, in its FEC spending reports, concealed money going to Mr. Steele. The campaign listed the funds as “legal services” to Perkins Coie.
States the complaint: “By using Perkins Coie as a straw man intermediary for this pervasively political, non-legal work, [Hillary for America] and the DNC were able to mask their relationship to Fusion GPS from the public in the critical weeks before the 2016 presidential election, in direct violation of federal campaign finance law. This intentionally false reporting would allow HFA and the DNC to disavow any potentially embarrassing or controversial activities in which Fusion GPS engaged.”
Second, the complaint alleges that Mr. Steele, as a foreign national, was prevented by law from contributing “any thing of value,” (the phrase Ms. Weintraub used) to a campaign. The foundation alleges that the Kremlin gossip he collected was “anything of value.”
“Steele, a foreign national, solicited numerous other foreign nationals, including but not limited to Russian citizens and current and former members of the Russian government and Russian intelligence services, for things of value,” Coolidge Reagan alleges.
Third, Mr. Steele was so involved in trying to sell his allegations to reporters in Washington he actually was making campaign decisions. It is against the law for foreigner nationals to take on that role in U.S. elections.
“Compiled from lies, innuendo, and fabrications from foreign nationals, the dossier itself was a vehicle through which current and former agents of the Russian government were able to attempt to undermine Donald Trump’s candidacy,” the complaint alleges.
Coolidge Reagan is the second nonprofit to file an FEC dossier complaint.
In October 2017, shortly after the DNC’s role was revealed, the Campaign Legal Center lodged a complaint on just one issue — hiding the payments to Fusion GPS as legal services to Perkins Coie.
A spokesman said that the center hasn’t been notified of any FEC action and considers the matter still open.
Mr. Backer said the FEC process goes like this: The general counsel decides whether to accept a complaint and start a “matter under review.”
Respondents and complainants can then reply. The counsel prepares a report to the commission, which votes on whether there is a “reason to believe” a violation occurred. If a complaint receives four votes, a formal investigation begins.
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