The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Free Speech For People Sues FEC Over Trump Campaign's Hush Money Payment

The lawsuit charges the Federal Election Commission with failing to investigate Trump and his campaign’s role in buying former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal’s silence about her alleged affair with the president, in violation of campaign finance law


Free Speech For People, a nonpartisan nonprofit legal advocacy organization, filed a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission on Thursday for failing to investigate a $150,000 "hush money" payment made in 2016 to Karen McDougal, one of President Trump's former mistresses, as a potential violation of federal campaign finance law.

The lawsuit challenges the Federal Election Commission's failure to act on a February 2018 administrative complaint from Free Speech For People. The complaint, amended in April and July 2018, presented evidence that President Trump, his campaign, and his personal lawyer and campaign operative Michael Cohen arranged for American Media Inc. (the publisher of the National Enquirer) to pay $150,000 to buy McDougal's story and prevent its publication during the 2016 election. The law provides that if the FEC has not resolved a complaint within 120 days of filing, the complaining party may challenge that delay in federal court. Federal prosecutors have concluded proceedings against Cohen, who pleaded guilty, and American Media, which entered into a non-prosecution agreement, for violating the Federal Election Campaign Act.

"The Federal Election Commission needs to do its job," said Jessica Kim, an attorney at Cohen Milstein representing Free Speech for People in their case against the FEC. "That includes addressing violations of federal campaign finance law by candidates or their campaigns in a timely and thorough manner."

Questions remain about the exact role and liability of the Trump campaign and President Trump himself in the McDougal case. Cohen testified in court and in later congressional testimony that he arranged the McDougal hush money "at the direction of, and in coordination with" Trump. But Trump and his team have consistently denied Trump's involvement in the McDougal payoff and have publicly accused Cohen of lying in exchange for leniency from prosecutors. House Oversight Committee ranking member Jim Jordan and Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows even asked Attorney General William Barr to investigate Cohen for perjury.

In contrast to the Department of Justice, which has adopted a policy against prosecuting sitting presidents, the FEC has the capacity to bring civil charges against a sitting president for campaign finance law violations. The FEC can also bring charges against a president's campaign committee. Most recently, the FEC fined the Obama campaign $375,000 for accepting excessive contributions and failing to name donors in the final weeks of the 2008 election.

According to the lawsuit, "an FEC investigation is essential to clarifying the nature of Mr. Trump's and/or the Trump campaign's involvement."

"It's unlikely prosecutors would pursue a case against Trump after Mueller declined to charge the President with a crime," said Ron Fein, Legal Director for Free Speech For People. "But an investigation by the FEC is not subject to the same limits. The American people deserve to learn the truth about what happened in the 2016 election, and since neither prosecutors nor Congress seem inclined to dig any further into the hush money payoff, the FEC needs to do its job."

Free Speech For People is a national non-partisan non-profit organization founded on the day of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. FEC that works to defend our democracy and our Constitution.