By Alexander Bolton - 05/25/06 12:00 AM EDT
Federal law-enforcement officials say they witnessed a dramatic jump in campaign-finance and other election-related crimes in the 2004 presidential election year and are determined to beef up their policing of candidates running for federal and local office around the country this year.
Illegal fundraising schemes appear to have grown in number and sophistication as candidates have needed to raise more and more money to be competitive. Several members of Congress have recently found themselves caught up in fundraising controversies.
In the past year and a half, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has reassigned nearly 200 agents to the problem of public corruption, bringing to 600 the total number of agents working on public-integrity cases.
While the Justice Department’s increased focus on public corruption has been talked about in Washington, the FBI’s elevation of such crimes among its priorities is less known. Even less noticed has been the FBI’s new focus on violations of election law, which for years law-enforcement officials considered minor crimes, lawyers specializing in the field said.
But that is changing as candidates and their supporters have become bolder and more creative in skirting fundraising and election law. Furthermore, legislation Congress passed in 2002 making many election-law violations felonies has given law-enforcement officials greater incentive to investigate and prosecute.
Chip Burrus, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, who is in charge of all public-corruption investigations, explained the new emphasis on election crimes in an interview Monday.
“We kept getting a lot of reports from the field regarding different schemes that were coming up that involved election issues,” he said. “These schemes are getting a lot more complicated than they ever have been before.”
Burrus said that the bureau had previously designated “two or three agents” 30 days before Election Day to respond to allegations of voter fraud. Often, these agents couldn’t do much before the election for fear of being accused of interfering in the election.
“We always seemed to be chasing the problem instead of getting ahead of it,” he said. “Now we have agents looking for this stuff every day,” instead of waiting until late September or October.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice said that the department has focused on public corruption for a long time and that the FBI has started to bring itself more “in line” with that focus.
In 2000, when George W. Bush and Al Gore squared off for the White House, the FBI opened only eight election-law-related cases. Two years later, during the 2002 midterm election, the bureau opened 19 such cases. But in 2004 the FBI investigated 68 potential violations of election law, according to statistics provided by the agency.
The number of cases opened in 2005 dropped to 21, but law-enforcement officials are anticipating another surge this year.
To prepare, the FBI has trained 60 agents spread throughout all 56 field offices in campaign-finance and election law. Two members of the Federal Election Commission helped instruct the agents. So did Kenneth Gross, a prominent Washington-based campaign-finance lawyer, who gave them insight into the strategies and perspectives of defense lawyers.
“We’ll put as many agents as we need to on these cases,” Burrus said. He added that public-corruption crimes are now fourth among the FBI’s priorities, after terrorism, counterintelligence and computer crimes, such as Internet fraud and identity theft. Burrus said the effort is not a reaction to the high-profile scandal involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe public officials.
Observers of elections applaud the renewed commitment to ensuring that local and federal candidates follow the law, yet some say that law enforcement should be careful not to intimidate voters or tarnish candidates.
“Failure to enforce laws means that some campaigns are playing by the rules while others benefit by not playing by the rules,” said Spencer Overton, a law professor at George Washington University.
“In the same token, however, we should ensure that enforcement is evenhanded and not politically motivated, said Overton, who has written a new book, Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression. “We don’t want the improper enforcement of laws to either chill grassroots political activity or favor one political party to the detriment of the other.”
FBI officials say that the bureau generated the initiative and that it was not imposed on it by the administration. Supervisory Special Agent Michael Elliot, an official who helped train agents said they were given clear instructions to treat election cases very sensitively.
Election experts said that the instances of ballot fraud and voter suppression do not appear to have increased in recent years but that there has been more suspicious or outright improper fundraising.
Tova Andrea Wang, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a liberal-leaning public-policy organization, who specializes in election reform said she doubts that anyone knows the amount of election fraud committed in the country. In contrast to the perceived growth in improper fundraising activities, Wang said, she believes that cases of ballot fraud are “extremely isolated” and have not increased in recent years.
But experts who follow campaign fundraising paint a different picture.
Nick Nyhart, the executive director of Public Campaign, a liberal group that advocates for the public financing of campaigns, said he suspects that many interactions between candidates and political donors are improper.
A candidate-donor relationship that has come under media scrutiny has been the one between Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and the investment company Cerberus Capital Management. One day after political donors linked to Cerberus gave Lewis’s political action committee $110,000, the House passed a bill that preserved funding for a Navy project important to the firm that Lewis had criticized. Lewis, who then was chairman of the House defense-spending subcommittee, was responsible for crafting the bill.
Lewis has denied having known at the time that Cerberus had an interest in the Navy project.
“There’s no doubt it was an underpoliced area in the past,” said Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who specializes in elections and politics, referring to activities covered by election law. “I think we’re seeing a lot more questionable activity. I trace a lot of it to the leadership PAC phenomenon.”
Ornstein explained that lawmakers who do not face tough reelection races nevertheless feel pressure to raise a lot of money through political action committees for other candidates to ingratiate themselves with the party leadership. He noted that Lewis won his position as chairman of the Appropriations Committee in part because of the vast amount of money he raised for Republican candidates and that a significant portion of the funds came from Cerberus.
Supporting the assertion that illegal campaign-finance schemes have grown in number, the Federal Election Commission has recently handed out several of its largest fines in agency history. For example, in April the agency fined Freddie Mac a record $3.8 million for illegally using corporate resources to raise more than $1.5 million for Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
Nyhart, however, predicted that candidates’ and donors’ shady practices will drop once word spreads that the FBI is paying more attention.
“If they know that their FBI agents in every field office are looking over their shoulders, I think they’ll be careful in not engaging in direct quid pro quos when it comes of campaign promises,” he said.