Inside the campaign-finance ‘end run’ that earned GOP an FEC fine
The Wyoming Republican Party secretly supported a 2016 Trump campaign “end run” around donation limitations without securing requisite authorization, according to a former official involved in the matter.
In the spring of 2017, several months after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, the Wyoming Republican Party’s then-treasurer, Doug Chamberlain, received a letter from the Federal Elections Commission warning him of a potential campaign finance violation, he said.
The violation — which resulted in a $52,000 fine, and was first reported by WyoFile in May — cited the party’s failure to meet donation report deadlines for a series of unusual transfers between the Republican National Committee, the Wyoming Republican Party and the “Trump Victory Fund” political action committee, according to Chamberlain.
But there was a bigger problem: Chamberlain, who was responsible for signing off on all of the party’s financial activities and compliance with all FEC requirements per bylaws, was completely unaware of the arrangement, he said. According to Chamberlain, then-party chairman Matt Micheli had brokered a deal to pass donations made to the state party through to Trump’s campaign without informing Chamberlain or securing his approval.
The transactions were part of a legal if dubious practice that enabled donors to circumvent campaign-contribution limits. When a Trump supporter reached his or her spending limit in one state, that same donor would donate additional funds to the Wyoming Republican Party via the RNC — or one of 27 other state Republican Parties with similar arrangements — which would then immediately transfer the money to the Trump campaign.
According to campaign finance records, more than $2.9 million was shuttled through the Wyoming Republican Party to the Trump campaign in the 2016 cycle.
“It’s sort of a shell game that allows donors to write six-figure checks to support a party’s presidential candidate,” said Brendan Fischer, director of the federal reform program at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington D.C.. “It’s a very problematic practice, but for the most part it doesn’t violate current campaign finance law.”
“To me it was an obvious ‘end run’ to by-pass individual state laws and, speaking only for me, it clearly would not pass the ‘smell test,’” Chamberlain wrote in a letter explaining the arrangement later obtained by WyoFile.
“The issue was simple,” he wrote. “Just because something is legal does not make it right.”
The practice isn’t unique to the Trump campaign or the Republican Party, according to experts. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, both Democrats, employed similar tactics in their presidential campaigns (albeit at a smaller scale), according to complaints filed with the FEC over the years.
Reading the agreement between the RNC and Trump Victory after the FEC flagged the activity, Chamberlain discovered the RNC had inserted a clause absolving itself of all legal responsibility should something go awry. Federal law, however, dictates the state party treasurer — not the party chairman — is responsible for authorizing any and all federal transfers. Without Chamberlain’s signature, both the Wyoming Republican Party and the RNC faced legal exposure, with the potential to bankrupt the state party and jeopardize one of the national party’s 28 conduits to shuttle money between major donors and the Trump campaign.
Micheli declined to comment for this story, writing in an email that the events Chamberlain described occurred after his time as chairman.
In the ensuing months, Chamberlain said, the RNC put immense pressure on him and Chairman Frank Eathorne to retroactively sign an agreement authorizing the transfers and, later, implied they could be fined tens of thousands of dollars for the violation. Chamberlain refused until the Wyoming Republican Party received assurances that the RNC would cover any fines levied against the state party as a result of the pass throughs, he said. According to campaign finance records, the RNC later acquiesced, transferring $52,000 to the Wyoming GOP’s federal account the same day the state party reported paying a $52,000 fine to the FEC.
Chamberlain also offered to step down as treasurer, he said, to allow Eathorne to appoint a treasurer who would sign the agreement. Eathorne declined the offer.
“There was never an issue between Chairman Eathorne and I over the handling of the FEC issue,” Chamberlain said in an interview. “He held his ground just like I did, and I think he did a good job. Because he was under a lot of pressure. They even convinced him at one point that if he would sign as chairman that would make [the arrangement] legal. Which wasn’t true at all.
“The legal counsel for the RNC was very, very tough on me,” Chamberlain added. “But they weren’t dealing with an amateur. I’ve been through a lot of rodeos, they weren’t scaring me. I was not signing. Period.”
Eathorne disputes there was any pressure from the RNC to sign the agreement, writing in a text message that the only “real pressure” from the RNC involved meeting the required FEC deadlines.
“Getting to the finish line required numerous hours of negotiating to finalize the agreement that was reported,” Eathorne wrote.
Wyoming wasn’t alone in receiving FEC scrutiny for the practice. In April, Axios reported that the FEC was in the midst of probing a number of transfers between state Republican Parties, the RNC and the Trump campaign. Several state party chairs contacted by the outlet were apparently unaware of their states’ role in those transactions, even though state party leadership is required by law to authorize the transfers.
The commission’s investigations — including those against Wyoming — are still pending final action.
Meanwhile, the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions is planning a broad discussion on campaign finance reform in Wyoming at its Monday meeting.
“We’re not talking anything specifically about campaign finance with regards to the parties that I know of, but we will be talking about dark money, what we can do to make our campaign finance laws more robust to figure out how we get some more transparency,” co-chairman Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said.
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