Hiding in Plain Sight: How the Federal Elections Commission Can Use Existing Disclosures To Detect Campaign Finance Fraud

Last August, U.S. Congressman Duncan Hunter was indicted for misuse of campaign funds for personal benefit. The Justice Department alleges that Hunter conspired with his wife, whom he appointed campaign manager, to steal from his campaign to support their lavish lifestyle: the campaign spent $15,000 on airline tickets and hotel rooms for Hunter’s children and relatives, a $14,000 Thanksgiving trip to Italy, and for other expenses like $700 for seven adult and five children’s tickets to see “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Though Representative Hunter’s conduct is only now being investigated, the allegations of improper spending go back to 2009, and many of the expenses now under scrutiny were detailed in his campaign’s filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). FEC filings are public records, readily available and searchable (via simple keyword searches on the FEC’s webpage) to anyone interested in looking. For example, Representative Hunter is a “vaping” enthusiast (even smoking his e-cigarette in Congress). Using the FEC’s webpage and a simple search for the words “cigar,” “smoke,” and “tobacco,” I found that Representative Hunter’s  2015-16 campaign expenditures include hundreds of dollars of spending at a cigar lounge, smoke shop, and tobacco company in his home district. Similar search results through the FEC website show all sorts of eyebrow-raising transactions.

So why weren’t the problems detected earlier? The problem, in cases like this, is not that the FEC doesn’t have enough information to identify suspicious activity—it’s that it has too much information. The FEC has massive amounts of data, making the detection of fraud a needle-in-the-haystack problem. The FEC relies largely on complaints and referrals to guide its enforcement process, with the result that enforcement remains anemic.  In 2017, for example, the FEC levied administrative fines in 215 matters totaling under $2 million, despite having data on 23.4 million line-item disbursements and 34.5 million individual contributions, not even counting electioneering communication transactions and the massive data on political action committees (PACs).

Waiting for referrals, or screening data by hand, is not an effective way for the FEC’s roughly 300 employees to detect corruption or fraud in campaign finance. There are no silver-bullet solutions; fraud detection is a fundamentally difficult, especially when fraudsters take steps to cover their tracks. But there are some steps the FEC can take to better monitor fraudulent expenditures to identify suspicious cases early on:

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Stealing a City: Lessons from Bell, California

In 2010, a corruption scandal rocked the city of Bell, California, as eight top city officials were arrested for what the Los Angeles Country District Attorney called “corruption on steroids.” The officials were charged with misappropriating funds from city government to the tune of $5.5 million, and garnering salaries as high $800,000, more than quadruple the California governor’s salary. In a series of trials that stretched on for more than three years, the mayor ultimately pled no contest to 69 felonies, and the trials of the various city officials have been riddled with allegations of voter fraud, extortion of local businesses, taking of illegal loans from the city, and manipulation of the pension system. Bell officials even used (and likely tampered with) a referendum to change the city’s legal structure to a chartered city which allowed them to raise their own salaries.

The United States generally experiences very low levels of corruption convictions, around 1,000 per year across the nation. One might expect that some level of state, federal, or citizen oversight would have prevented the Bell incident. Yet this massive scandal was only uncovered due to quality investigative journalism by the Los Angeles Times, and only after five full years of consistent wrongdoing by city officials. How did this happen, and how can similar misconduct be prevented in the future?

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