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The Federal Election Commission, the government body that oversees campaign finance, is reviewing a complaint alleging that the campaign of Rep. Patrick Murphy accepted potentially illegal contributions in 2011.
The complaint by the Republican super-PAC claims that a donor and childhood friend of Murphy’s, Ibrahim Al-Rashid, avoided campaign contribution limits by using the names of employees and the parents of his then-partner as "straw donors" when the money really came from the Al-Rashid family. A total of $24,000 was involved.
Ibrahim and his brother Ramzi, also named on the complaint, are the sons of a powerful, and politically-connected Saudi billionaire. Ibrahim Al-Rashid has been major financial benefactor of Murphy's, giving almost $400,000 to his campaigns and outside groups supporting Murphy since the Florida congressman first ran in 2012.
Joshua Karp, spokesman for the Murphy campaign, told The Hill the straw donor complaint was “frivolous and unfounded."
"We expect the FEC to dismiss it in short order, as they do with hundreds of complaints filed by partisan political action committees every year,” he said.
The campaign, as well as the donors named in the six-page complaint, were given, as is typical, 15 days to respond in writing to the allegations.
Murphy and the others named on the complaint were told to submit in writing - including sworn statements if desired - why the FEC should not take action against them.
The FEC has not yet launched a formal investigation, according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter.
FEC spokesman Christian Hilland declined to comment on the status of the complaint, saying the commission is legally obliged to keep enforcement issues confidential.
The 2011 donations under review were to support Murphy’s original run for Congress, an early period of his campaign in which he needed to demonstrate he could raise big money to be taken seriously as a young candidate up against a better-known Democrat.
The alleged straw donor payments included a $300 donation from a woman who identified herself on the FEC form as a “property manager” for a company called Limestone Property Management.
In a second donation listed on the complaint, the woman was identified on the FEC form as “owner” of Limestone Property Management when she gave $1,200 to then-Senate candidate Charlie Crist.
But she is neither the property manager nor the owner of the Texas-based company. In fact, she doesn't work there.
Ramzi Al-Rashid manages Limestone Property Management, according to public records.
The woman lived in Miami at the time and was the "cleaning lady" for Ramzi's brother Ibrahim, according to a Miami-Dade Police Department report filed in 2012 over a home burglary at Ibrahim's property.
The FEC has no record of her making a campaign contribution before the two payments to Murphy and Crist.
The woman could not be reached for comment. And none of the other people named on the complaint, including the Al-Rashid brothers, would talk to The Hill.
Karp, Murphy’s spokesman, also said the spike in the campaign’s legal fees through July and early August was unrelated to the complaint.
"These fees have nothing to do with that complaint. That complaint is frivolous and unfounded," he said.
"Our recent legal expenses cover work performed back in May and earlier, and are not connected to the Senate Leadership Fund's complaint filed in June."
From July 6 to Aug. 4, Murphy’s team spent $52,805 on legal fees to two law firms, according to The Hill’s analysis of FEC reports.
That’s 1,500 percent higher than the average amount Murphy's campaign spent for the previous 16 months.
No other candidate running in a competitive Senate race Democrat or Republican, has spent anything close to that sum on legal fees over the course of a month this cycle.
One of Murphy's law firms, Washington, D.C.-based Miller & Chevalier, is known for defending politicians who are dealing with congressional ethics allegations.
Only four other candidates over the past two election cycles have hired Miller & Chevalier—Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and Susie Lee, an unsuccessful candidate this year in a Democratic House primary in Nevada.
Three of those four – Gutierrez, Chu, and Honda – faced ethics probes during the same period they hired Miller & Chevalier.
The Murphy campaign declined to say what work Miller & Chevalier was doing for them, and the law practice did not respond to a request for comment.
Asked to give his assessment of the unexplained spike in Murphy's legal spending, campaign legal expert Larry Noble said it was noteworthy.
“When you see there’s a ramp up in legal fees there’s often something there," said Noble, the general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan watchdog.
“The problem is knowing what it is,” added Noble, who is not directly familiar with the Murphy campaign’s finances.
“If there’s a complaint filed, the first step if for the FEC to find reason to believe there’s been a violation…In this case, we don’t know if there’s reason to believe or not.
“It’s hard to tell what’s going on. It could be something totally unrelated to the alleged straw donor scheme.”
Allie Bice and Sarah Mearhoff contributed reporting.