Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis takes questions from the media

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis takes questions from the media on May 15, 2023.

(Photo: Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

DeSantis Hit With FEC Complaint Over 'Brazen' Violation of Campaign Finance Law

"Soft money undermines federal campaign finance laws because it is, by definition, money raised and spent outside the scope of those laws."

A campaign finance watchdog on Tuesday filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, alleging that the 2024 Republican presidential candidate unlawfully transferred or directed more than $80 million from a state political action committee to a super PAC supporting his White House bid.

The Campaign Legal Center (CLC) says in its complaint that the reported transfer of funds from the state committee—formerly known as "Friends of Ron DeSantis"—to the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down runs afoul of rules barring political candidates from spending so-called "soft money" on federal elections.

"For over twenty years, the Federal Election Campaign Act ('FECA') has prohibited federal candidates like DeSantis, along with their agents and entities they establish, finance, maintain, or control, from spending 'soft money'—including, e.g., money raised by nonfederal committees and organizations that are not subject to federal campaign finance laws—in connection with a federal election," reads the complaint.

"The transfer of this colossal sum from a state PAC that DeSantis established and used to raise over $225 million, to a federal committee that has spent, and plans to continue spending, millions of dollars supporting DeSantis' own campaign is a brazen attempt to circumvent the federal campaign finance rules that are crucial to preventing corruption and establishing transparency about how our federal elections are financed," the filing continues.

CLC announced the complaint just days after DeSantis formally launched his presidential campaign in a glitch-filled Twitter livestream with billionaire Elon Musk.

Saurav Ghosh, CLC's director of federal campaign finance reform, said in a statement that "soft money undermines federal campaign finance laws because it is, by definition, money raised and spent outside the scope of those laws."

"We're talking about funds from billionaires and corporate special interests who could exert massive influence over the candidate they are financing," said Ghosh. "Laws banning these funds from being used to seek federal office are there for a reason—to prevent corruption, promote transparency, and ensure that wealthy special interests can’t rig the system even further in their favor."

The FEC is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, and the agency has not acted on recent complaints alleging campaign finance violations by high-profile political figures—including former President Donald Trump, also a 2024 candidate.

The DeSantis campaign insists it has not done anything illegal because the governor is no longer officially associated with the state PAC that until recently bore his name. The committee is now called the "Empower Parents PAC" and chaired by Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, a DeSantis ally.

Critics have scoffed at the notion that the state PAC's decision to shift tens of millions of dollars to a pro-DeSantis super PAC—which is barred by law from coordinating directly with any candidate—would be made independently of DeSantis. Never Back Down is run by some of the Florida governor's "closest friends," according toThe Wall Street Journal.

"The idea that Ron DeSantis is no longer controlling or associated with 'Friends of Ron DeSantis' is absurd," journalist Judd Legum wrote earlier this month in his newsletter Popular Information. "And the notion that the money held by Friends of Ron DeSantis will decide to transfer its funds to Never Back Down independent of DeSantis is not credible."

In its complaint, CLC notes that on the same day that DeSantis launched his campaign, "Never PAC confirmed that it has received or will soon receive $80 million from Friends of Ron DeSantis, and that the super PAC had factored that major contribution—comprising 40% of its budget—into their plans."

The complaint points to a May New York Timesstory reporting that top officials with Never Back Down said they "expected to have an overall budget of at least $200 million, including more than $80 million to be transferred from an old DeSantis state political account."

"Indeed, for weeks before DeSantis’s candidacy announcement, Never PAC officials had reportedly been 'telling donors they intend to push the bounds' of super PAC support, laying out plans to raise and spend 'about $200 million' to support DeSantis' presidential campaign, including 'the more than $85 million that DeSantis has in a state fundraising account,' i.e., Friends of Ron DeSantis," the complaint states. "Never PAC has been using and/or reportedly intends to use this soft money in connection with a federal election by making over $944,000 in independent expenditures supporting DeSantis."

Further making a mockery of the campaign finance regime ushered in by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, the pro-DeSantis super PAC has reportedly "raised $500,000 into a separate draft committee that is expected to be transferred directly to [the Florida governor's presidential] campaign in the coming days."

CBS News reported over the weekend that Never Back Down "has been encouraging donors to contribute online to the 'Draft DeSantis 2024 Fund,' a super PAC created in early March to house money from DeSantis donors until his campaign launch. Super PACs can raise unlimited funds, but they are generally considered expenditure-only, meaning they cannot contribute directly to a candidate."

Ghosh, a former FEC enforcement attorney, expressed dismay over the fundraising scheme in a series of tweets on Sunday.

"Super PACs—required by law to remain 'independent' of candidates—are now raising money for presidential campaigns. What a time to be alive," Ghosh wrote. "When the Supreme Court, in Citizens United, struck down longstanding campaign finance laws and opened the door to massive outside spending and super PACs, the justices said this spending would not cause corruption because it would be independent of candidates."

"So much for that," he added.

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