Campaign watchdogs accuse Bush of violating election law

Two campaign finance watchdogs are accusing former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) of violating campaign laws by fundraising for his super-PAC while “actively running for president” and want the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate.

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While Bush has not yet filed as an official candidate, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 argue that he’s been acting as a presidential candidate “in all pertinent respects” since January 2015. That, the groups say, should compel him to follow laws that restrict coordination between candidates and allied super-PACs.

“It is hard to conclude that laws are not being broken when you look at Jeb Bush’s actions as an ‘undeclared’ candidate and the laws on the books,” Campaign Legal Center Executive Director J. Gerald Hebert says in a letter the two groups sent to the DOJ.

“Quite clearly this is a man very actively running for President and raising tens of millions of dollars in ‘soft money’ to aid his quest.”

Bush has been using his super-PAC as his main vehicle for donations until he launches the official campaign structure. That allows him to raise unlimited money, compared to a campaign committee that must comply with federal caps, including a $2,700 maximum on individual contributions per cycle.

The Washington Post reported that many Republicans believe he will amass $100 million for his Right to Rise super-PAC by the end of May and that Bush told a group of top donors in April that he’s raised more than any other potential Republican candidate in history through the first 100 days since he announced that he was exploring a bid.

Once Bush becomes a candidate, he can no longer coordinate spending with his super-PAC. But the watchdog groups argue that he’s crossed the line and become a candidate, even without officially declaring.

The group points at a recent flub by Bush at a media conference in Nevada earlier this month, when he told reporters “I am running for president in 2016,” before walking the comment back.

“The fact of his candidacy is so apparent, and so overt, that Bush himself has found it hard to maintain what is really the ongoing charade of his purported non-candidacy,” the letter says.

While the Federal Election Commission typically would hear these complaints, the watchdogs claim the organization is “dysfunctional,” as it regularly splits on partisan lines on enforcement issues.

“In light of the effective collapse of the civil enforcement system as a result of the paralysis of the FEC, it is essential for the Department to exercise its concurrent jurisdiction to enforce the criminal provisions of the campaign finance law,” the letter says.

Bush isn’t the first prospective candidate to draw the ire of the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21. The groups filed FEC complaints in March against Bush, Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.), former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-Md.), and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) for not officially declaring that they are “testing the waters” of a presidential campaign.