Clinton's payments for the Russia dossier were legal, but hiding them was not

Clinton's payments for the Russia dossier were legal, but hiding them was not
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When a presidential campaign and a national political party intentionally mislead voters about how they are raising or spending money, that is no small matter.

In 2016, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump to declassify controversial text messages, documents related to Russia probe Hypocrisy in Kavanaugh case enough to set off alarms in DC Clinton: Hard to ignore 'racial subtext of virtually everything Trump says' MORE’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee arranged to pay a company called Fusion GPS to conduct research on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE. Fusion started researching Trump for The Washington Free Beacon and, reportedly, a Republican candidate whose identity is not yet known. Then, in April 2016, the Clinton campaign and the DNC took over the funding of Fusion’s research.

There was nothing inherently wrong with this arrangement. To the contrary, although opposition research sometimes gets a bad rap, it is a perfectly legal — even healthy — practice. Opposition research can provide voters with information about the records and conduct of candidates in important areas that the candidates themselves would often rather not discuss.

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But to make sure that voters also have the financial information they need, federal law requires campaigns to file reports with the Federal Election Commission. In terms of spending, this requirement is not complicated: The campaign basically just files a report with the FEC listing the people and companies it paid money to and what that money was for. The descriptions can be very simple, such as “advertising,” “payroll” or “research.” The FEC then posts this information online for everyone to see.

 

The Clinton campaign and the DNC did not comply with their legal obligation to disclose their payments to Fusion for opposition research. Instead, they concealed the fact that any payments were made to Fusion at all. Rather than disclosing the spending, the campaign and the DNC told the FEC the money had gone to their law firm, and the Clinton campaign said that it had made the payments for “legal services.”

That was not true. The money was not for “legal services,” and to describe it as having been paid to the firm is highly misleading. The firm was a conduit between Fusion and the Clinton campaign and DNC. In other words, money that went to the firm was ultimately paid to Fusion. And Fusion provided no legal services to anyone. To the contrary, what Fusion provided in the end turned out to be the infamous “Trump dossier,” with its smorgasbord of allegations. 

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Whatever your view of the Trump dossier, everyone can agree on one thing: It is not legal advice. And it is highly unlikely to have been intended just to inform the legal advice the lawyers were giving. When the Clinton campaign told the FEC — and thereby told the public — that it had simply paid the money to its law firm for legal expenses, their description was false and misleading. No observer could have ever determined from the campaign’s or the DNC’s filings the true purpose or recipient of their spending, so those filings did not comply with the law.

There really is no defense. The same law firm that routed the money from the campaign to Fusion has recently claimed that Fusion “supported the provision of legal services” by the firm. I would ask any reader to review the Trump dossier and determine for himself or herself whether it seems like it was created to support the giving of legal advice to the DNC or the Clinton campaign.

The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center has filed a formal complaint with the FEC, asking that agency to investigate these unlawful filings by the Clinton campaign and the DNC. Voters have a right to know about the money that political candidates use to get themselves elected. This right is critical to the ability of voters — as well as advocacy groups and journalists — to determine the candidates’ priorities and to understand how they will govern if elected. To vindicate the voters’ right to information, the FEC should find that the law was broken and assess penalties accordingly. The validity of the dossier might be unclear, but the law here is not.

Adav Noti is the senior director of trial litigation and strategy at the Campaign Legal Center, a group dedicated to democracy reform.