Clinton, DNC connections to Trump dossier funding could create election law issues

The politically-explosive revelation that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPapadopoulos's wife wants him to scrap plea deal with Mueller: report FBI chief: I'm trying to bring 'normalcy' in 'turbulent times' Senate Intel chief slams ex-CIA director for timing of claims about Trump-Russia ties MORE’s campaign and the Democratic Party paid for some of the research that produced an uncorroborated election-year dossier connecting President Trump to Russia may have broken campaign laws.

Election law experts said candidates and their committees are required to report expenses accurately and in detail, and that civil or criminal penalties can be imposed for failing to do so.

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The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the Democratic National Committee and Clinton's campaign funded some of the research by the firm Fusion GPS, but routed the monies through a law firm. Their campaign reports listed no payments to Fusion GPS and the expenses attributed to the law firm Perkins Coie are described as legal work, not opposition research, the paper noted.

Federal Election Commission expert Jan Baran told The Hill that while it is not illegal and improper for campaigns to hire opposition research, questions are raised when they fail to accurately report the money they spend on it.

“The issue is number one, did the campaigns pay for this service? And apparently, based on press reports, they did,” Baran said. “And number two, if they did, then it should have been accurately reported in some fashion on their FEC reports.”

Baran added that thus far, there are no signs of a FEC filing by the Clinton campaign or DNC for the opposition research expenses incurred for this dossier.

On Tuesday evening, the first legal complaints were filed accusing Clinton's campaign and the DNC of filing misleading campaign finance reports.

The nonprofit watchdog group Campaign Legal Center asked the FEC to investigate whether Clinton and the DNC's reporting of the dossier funding as legal bills violated federal election laws.

"By failing to file accurate reports, the DNC and Hillary For America undermined the vital public information role that reporting is intended to serve," CLC said in its complaint.

The FEC declined to comment on the specifics of the Clinton campaign, but noted that rules passed in 2013 reinforced the obligation that expenditures be filed with accurate descriptions.

Clinton's office did not return a call seeking comment. Former Clinton campaign press secretary Brian Fallon on Twitter said he had not known about the campaign's role in funding the dossier but suggested it was a good idea anyways. 

“I have no idea what Fusion or Steele were paid but if even a shred of that dossier ends up helping (Justice Department special counsel Robert) Mueller, it will prove money well spent,” he tweeted.

The DNC also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Legal expenses and research are identified in the FEC rules as two separate categories for the purpose of describing expenditures.

Baran said that the law allows for civil penalties if an expenditure is misreported unintentionally, but a criminal case could be brought if the misrepresentation is shown to be willful and knowing.

“Whether there was intentional false filing of the information would depend on all the facts,” he added. “Depends on who knew how the money was being spent, how the committee decided to report the purpose of particular bill.”

The Department of Justice didn’t return The Hill's request for comment on whether it plans to investigate the Clinton campaign's dossier funding and disclosure.

- Updated 7:20 p.m.