Barbara Lee Hit With FEC Complaint for Illegal Coordination With Super PAC

Super PAC used film and photos from California Senate candidate's campaign to produce video ad

Rep. Barbara Lee (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
February 26, 2024

California Democratic congresswoman Barbara Lee may have violated federal election law by coordinating with her outside super PAC on advertising materials for her Senate campaign, according to a complaint filed Monday to the Federal Election Commission.

Lee’s super PAC, She Speaks for Me, allegedly used photos and video footage prepared by her campaign to create a video ad that Lee’s campaign shared on social media the next day. This arrangement likely counts as an illegal contribution under federal campaign finance laws which bar both "coordinated communications" between a candidate and outside groups and "republication" of campaign materials, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a government watchdog, says in its complaint.

"A super PAC’s existence and ability to solicit unlimited donations from individuals and corporations is wholly dependent on the fact that they don’t make contributions to or coordinate with candidates," the complaint states, adding that the actions of Lee’s campaign and She Speaks for Me would "eviscerate" the law if allowed to stand.

The complaint comes as Lee struggles to stay viable in California’s Senate race ahead of next month’s nonpartisan primary. The progressive Oakland congresswoman has consistently trailed her two Democratic opponents, Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter, as well as Republican former baseball star Steve Garvey who is polling in second place. Her fundraising has also fallen far short of Schiff and Porter, although the $5 million she has pulled in more than doubles the $2.1 million raised by Garvey.

Last year, Lee’s Senate campaign created video reels and compiled still photos for her website and social media accounts. She Speaks For Me then used the same video spots and photos for a minute-long video ad that features on its homepage. The group released its video Nov. 7. Lee posted this ad to her X, formerly Twitter, account on Nov. 8, noting that it was paid for by She Speaks For Me.

It’s unclear what the super PAC’s ad cost. She Speaks for Me made three separate payments to an Oakland-based video producer totaling $81,000. The smallest of these payments was $6,000, according to FEC filings. All told, the group—which is bankrolled by just three benefactors including prominent defund-the-police donors Quinn Delaney and Patty Quillin—has spent nearly $1.2 million to boost Lee. The bulk of that money went toward TV and digital ads.

Lee did not respond to a request for comment.

Under federal law, candidates and their committees can accept no more than $3,300 from individual donors or campaign committees and no more than $5,000 from multi-candidate committees.

Per federal campaign finance law, political contributions include "anything of value made by any person for the purpose of influencing any election for federal office," such as goods or services offered at no cost to a campaign. "Coordinated communication," which is when a candidate works with another party outside the campaign on materials, is also classified as a contribution.

The complaint notes that FEC regulations state that "republication"—defined as "dissemination, distribution or republication" of campaign materials or graphics—is considered a contribution that counts toward contribution limits.