The U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission have sent a strong message to PAC administrators: Break the established campaign finance laws, and you will be held accountable for your actions.
This message came as the Department of Justice announced the sentencing of Tyler Harber, a political operative who was tasked with running the Super PAC supporting Virginia Representative hopeful Chris Perkins in the 2012 election cycle. According to National Public Radio, Harber is in fact the first operative to ever be found guilty of illegally coordinating between an official campaign and a Super PAC, and has received a two-year prison sentence, followed by two years of probation.
"I did it, it was wrong when I did it, and I knew it was wrong when I did it."
Harber knowingly breaks FEC rules
What may have been most stunning about the case was that Harber was well aware of the campaign finance laws that are on the books and how these apply to the relatively young Super PAC organizations.
In federal court on Friday, June 19, Harber acknowledged he knew what he was doing was illegal.
"I did it, it was wrong when I did it, and I knew it was wrong when I did it," he told the court, according to NPR.
The facts of the case are rather straight forward: Back in the 2012 election, Harber was an official part of the campaign for Perkins, a Republican candidate in Virginia's 11th District. Meanwhile, he was also heading up the National Republican Victory Fund (NRVF), a Super PAC that helped raise and spend $325,000, which was primarily used to run attack ads on Democrat incumbent Gerry Connolly.
The connection between the Super PAC and the campaign, which appears blatant in hindsight, was not discovered until after the election. It started when Terry Wear, who leads the Republican Party in the 11th district, was unconvinced of Harber's ethics during the campaign and took up an investigation on his own. This led to a series of discoveries that prompted Wear to blow the whistle on Harber, surpassing the FEC and going straight to the FBI.
The trial, which concluded in February, ended with Harber pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about being involved with Perkins' campaign and for illegal coordination between the Super PAC and the campaign.
Despite noting to the judge that this was "not just a mistake," but rather a "deliberate decision," to Harber, this was politics as usual.
"It was something I had seen other people do … these folks didn't get caught," he concluded.
FEC inaction a contributing factor?
Harber's reasoning – that if everyone else is doing it he should too – is problematic not only because it echoes middle school peer-pressure excuses, but also because it may bring up issues surrounding the FEC's ability to pursue complaints it receives.
According to NPR, the sentencing, which will bar him from performing any campaign management practices in his two-year probationary period, should serve as a warning to other political operatives who may be holding the "everybody's doing it" excuse in their back pockets. With the 2016 elections ramping up – and the donations flowing in – the DOJ is expected to aggressively pursue such investigations when they are brought to its attention.
"The significant prison sentence imposed on Tyler Harber should cause other political operatives to think twice about circumventing laws that promote transparency in federal elections," said Leslie R. Caldwell, assistant attorney general in the DOJ's Criminal Division. "As the first conviction for illegal campaign coordination, this case stands as an important step forward in the criminal enforcement of federal laws. Illegal campaign coordination can be difficult to detect, which is why we strongly encourage party or campaign insiders to come forward and blow the whistle."
"The sentencing should serve as a warning to other political operatives who may be holding the 'everybody's doing it' excuse in their back pockets."
This last point Caldwell brings up may be critically important for any future investigations, though. NPR spoke with campaign finance lawyer Robert Kelner, who noted that despite a loud bark, the DOJ will likely only pursue investigations that are "put on the department's doorstep."
'Because everyone's doing it' isn't an excuse
From the sidelines, it may be easy to see this case as black and white. After all, Harber knew what he was doing was wrong and moved forward with it anyway. But it's important to note that, by many accounts, Tyler Harber was not a "corrupt" individual.
According to Campaigns & Elections, Judge Liam O'Grady received several letters in support of Harber. Jordan Lieberman, president of CampaignGrid, stated that Harber was "among the most gifted teachers in our business." Joseph Desilets, a partner in consulting firm 21st & Main, lauded Harber, stating "I owe everything that I am today to Tyler Harber and his generosity and loyalty towards me."
So how could someone with a strong track record in the industry and clean past end up going to prison for breaking campaign finance laws? One possible answer is the pervasive idea that the current laws are so murky and allegations so inconsistent that campaign finance compliance has been put on the back burner.
What the DOJ hopes to say with this sentencing, though, is the opposite: It's time to take a hard stand against illegal campaigning activities, and enforce the laws that are already on the books.