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21 Things We Learned About Money in Politics in 2021

From campaign finance violations to corporate influence, the year was stocked with highs and lows.

December 6, 2021

21. The fund­ing of ballot meas­ures contin­ued to be a smor­gas­bord of unlim­ited money.

A federal judge blocked a new Flor­ida new law (S.B. 1890) that imposed a $3,000 contri­bu­tion limit to ballot initi­at­ive campaigns. And the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion decided that foreign money can be spent in ballot meas­ure fights. This foreign-money loop­hole would be closed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) bill, the Stop Foreign Inter­fer­ence in Ballot Meas­ures Act, or Sen. Shel­don White­house’s (D-RI) DISCLOSE Act.

20. Once a big polit­ical spender, the National Rifle Asso­ci­ation had a tough year.

The NRA declared bank­ruptcy and then tried to move to Texas, likely in an effort to dodge enforce­ment actions that were proceed­ing against it from the New York State attor­ney general. A bank­ruptcy judge dismissed the case, declar­ing that it was not filled in good faith. And to top that off, Giffords, the gun-control group foun­ded by former Arizona congress­wo­man Gabby Giffords, filed a federal lawsuit accus­ing the NRA of viol­at­ing campaign finance laws since 2014.

19. The rich always throw the new boss a fete, no matter the party.

Pres­id­ent Joe Biden’s inaug­ural raised $61 million, which was provided by 18 billion­aires and many corpor­ate donors, among others. Many of these corpor­ate donors like Pfizer, AT&T, and Boeing had previ­ously given to Pres­id­ent Donald Trump’s inaug­ural in 2017, which incid­ent­ally is still under invest­ig­a­tion by the D.C. attor­ney general.

18. Some campaign treas­ur­ers need to improve their math skills.

Federal candid­ates report their fundrais­ing and spend­ing to the FEC, but in some cases, the numbers did not add up. Rep. Jim Jord­an’s (R-OH) campaign faced ques­tions from the FEC over account­ing discrep­an­cies that exceed $100,000.

17. Campaign funds are not personal piggy banks.

You might think after the prosec­u­tions of former congress­men Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Jesse Jack­son Jr. (D-IL) for personal use of campaign funds, the message would have sunk in by now that federal candid­ates cannot use campaign money for life­style perks. But in August, the FEC had to ask Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) to explain the appar­ent personal use of her campaign funds to allegedly pay for rent and util­it­ies. And demon­strat­ing how seri­ous personal use of campaign funds is, in Septem­ber, Milwau­kee City Coun­cil member Chantia Lewis, a Demo­cratic candid­ate for U.S. Senate, was charged with a series of campaign finance viol­a­tions for allegedly using dona­tions and improper travel reim­burse­ments on more than $21,000 in car payments, family trips, and a worship confer­ence. Also in Septem­ber, former Massachu­setts state repres­ent­at­ive David M. Nangle (D) was sentenced for illeg­ally using campaign funds to pay for his personal expenses.

16. Big offices still cost big money.

There was at least $84 million spent in the failed effort to recall Cali­for­nia Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). At least $76 million was spent in the New Jersey governor’s race where the Demo­cratic incum­bent, Phil Murphy, raised more money and won reelec­tion. But the Virginia governor’s race took the cake, cost­ing at least $148 million. Repub­lican Glenn Young­kin raised slightly more than Demo­crat Terry McAul­iffe and won slightly more votes to take the governor’s mansion.

15. The worst places got worse.

Flor­ida, which already wasn’t great in terms of money in polit­ics, got rid of low local contri­bu­tion limits for local­it­ies by passing a state law that displaced good local campaign finance ordin­ances.

14. The fallout from Russian inter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion is still gener­at­ing crim­inal cases.

The Justice Depart­ment charged Roy Wead of Flor­ida, an advisor to multiple pres­id­en­tial campaigns, and Jesse Benton of Kentucky, who previ­ously worked as a campaign manager for two U.S. Senate campaigns and one pres­id­en­tial campaign, with conspir­acy to soli­cit an illegal campaign contri­bu­tion by a Russian foreign national.

13. Not every campaign finance matter from the 2016 elec­tion was resolved.

Time ran out on the stat­ute of limit­a­tions for char­ging Donald Trump for the hush fund payments to Stormy Daniels that landed Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in jail. Octo­ber 27 was the five-year anniversary of when Trump had Cohen secretly pay hush money to the porn star.

12. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is doing his best to crush campaign finance reform.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear FEC v. Ted Cruz for Senate. The ques­tion in the case is whether the federal loan-repay­ment limit for candid­ates viol­ates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amend­ment. The case gives the Roberts Supreme Court another chance to further hobble campaign finance law, which groups like the Bren­nan Center have advoc­ated against.

11. Some campaign expendit­ures raise more eyebrows than others.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) has been under scru­tiny ever since a close asso­ci­ate, Joel Green­berg, was arres­ted and began cooper­at­ing with invest­ig­at­ors who are look­ing into an alleged sex traf­fick­ing ring. Those look­ing at Gaet­z’s campaign expendit­ures have discovered that $825,000 has gone to a PR firm called Logan Circle Group, $50,000 went to legal fees to the same lawyer who repres­en­ted Jeffrey Epstein, and $20,000 went to a company run by Roger Stone.

10. It’s not all bad news: small donors made a splash in the New York City elec­tions.

2021 was the year for NYC elec­tions and small donors gave record amounts to candid­ates for City Coun­cil and city­wide offices like mayor or comp­troller. The elec­tion also resul­ted in the most diverse City Coun­cil ever, better reflect­ing the complex­ity of New York City.

9. In more good news, share­hold­ers got a new useful tool to respond to corpor­ate polit­ical spend­ing.

The new admin­is­tra­tion brought in new lead­er­ship across the federal govern­ment. The Secur­it­ies and Exchange Commis­sion changed the rules for share­holder propos­als. This change makes it easier for share­hold­ers to raise social issues like corpor­ate polit­ical spend­ing or lobby­ing expendit­ures for a vote on corpor­ate prox­ies, which are tracked by groups like the Center for Polit­ical Account­ab­il­ity and Sustain­able Invest­ments Insti­tute.

8. Contri­bu­tion limits are more vulner­able.

Follow­ing a Supreme Court decision in Thompson v. Hebdon, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that some of Alaska’s campaign limits viol­ate the First Amend­ment. The restric­tions included a $500 per year contri­bu­tion limit from indi­vidu­als to candid­ates, a $500 limit from indi­vidu­als to elec­tion-related groups, and a $3,000 cap from out-of-state contrib­ut­ors to candid­ates. However, the Ninth Circuit did uphold the $5,000 limit from a polit­ical party to a candid­ate.

7. Campaign dona­tions can end up in the hands of crim­inal defense attor­neys.

The RNC has agreed to pay some of Donald Trump’s legal fees related to the crim­inal invest­ig­a­tions into the Trump Organ­iz­a­tion by the offices of the Manhat­tan district attor­ney and New York State attor­ney general. This isn’t new, as Trump had the RNC foot legal bills for the Russia invest­ig­a­tion. But this is differ­ent because the legal prob­lems at issue at the Trump Organ­iz­a­tion were allegedly created before he was a federal candid­ate.

6. There were pardons for infam­ous campaign­ers.

Elli­ott Broidy, who once served as finance chair­man of the Repub­lican National Commit­tee, was pardoned by Pres­id­ent Trump in his last days in office. Broidy had been charged as acting as an unre­gistered foreign agent who tried to inter­fere in a federal invest­ig­a­tion into the 1MDB Malay­sian state fund fraud. He pleaded guilty. Broidy was pardoned the same day that Trump pardoned his former 2016 campaign manager, Stephen Bannon, who was charged with bilk­ing support­ers of an effort to build a wall along the south­ern border.

5. Donors should beware of the pre-checked box.

In April, the New York Times exposed the Trump campaign’s dodgy 2020 prac­tice of pre-check­ing boxes on its campaign contri­bu­tion soli­cit­a­tion pages, sign­ing donors up for recur­rent dona­tions without them real­iz­ing it. Even after this was roundly criti­cized, Trump’s pre-checked box scam contin­ued and was expan­ded by other Repub­lic­ans. As a result of his fundrais­ing efforts, Trump has over $100 million in his polit­ical war chest.

4. Donors also need to beware of straight up scam­mers.

It’s a jungle out there. As the price tag for elec­tions contin­ues to rise, so too does the oppor­tun­ity for fraud­sters. The Justice Depart­ment arres­ted three men — Matthew Nelson Tunstall, Robert Reyes Jr., and Kyle George Davies — for running scam PACs that allegedly tricked donors of $35 million.

3. Foreign money is still illegal in Amer­ican elec­tions.

Lev Parnas (a former asso­ci­ate of Rudy Giuliani) was convicted of viol­at­ing federal campaign finance laws for, among other things, hiding the foreign source of money that he and his asso­ci­ate Igor Fruman gave to several Amer­ican politi­cians, includ­ing Flor­ida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Sen. Rick Scott (D-FL).

2. Even­tu­ally bribery charges catch up to even the most power­ful.

In June, the Ohio House expelled State Rep. Larry House­holder (R), who stands accused in a federal indict­ment of accept­ing bribes from First Energy in exchange for actions on legis­la­tion when he was the speaker of the Ohio House.

1. Corpor­ate donors keep giving despite the Janu­ary 6 insur­rec­tion.

The attack in the Capitol was bad enough that some corpor­a­tions said they would suspend their dona­tions to the sedi­tion caucus. But a few months later, most of the corpor­a­tions who made such pledges found ways to give money to the same people either directly or indir­ectly through inter­me­di­ar­ies like lead­er­ship PACS. Hope­fully in the new year, corpor­a­tions will back demo­cracy more robustly, includ­ing by support­ing the passage of the Free­dom to Vote Act and John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act. Well, a girl can dream.