An ethics watchdog group filed a legal complaint against billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer’s Super PAC last week alleging that it may be illegally obtaining information on voters in the crucial swing state of Iowa.
Steyer’s group, the NextGen Climate Action Committee, in February reported paying more than $177,000 to the Democratic Senate campaign of former Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley, whom NextGen backed with nearly $5 million in independent expenditures last year.
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The payment was itemized as "list acquisition" on NextGen’s filings with the Federal Election Commission.
According to the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a conservative-leaning group helmed by former Iowa U.S. Attorney Matthew Whitaker, the purchase may have violated federal law.
Its purchase of Braley’s is by far its biggest expense in the state this year. The price tag is so high, FACT claims, that it may amount to a de facto contribution to the campaign, violating prohibitions on direct Super PAC support for federal candidates.
"If the payment was in excess of the market value of the list, it would be a prohibited contribution to the candidate," FACT says. "The Commission must conduct an immediate and thorough investigation into this action."
The federal law at issue is designed to prevent illicit campaign contributions disguised as payments for goods or services that greatly exceed their market value.
"A Super PAC should not be permitted to make a donation to a candidate under the guise of purchasing a voter list," FACT’s complaint states. "If this type of behavior were permitted, the rule prohibiting Super PACs from donation to candidates would be eviscerated."
The market value of a list such as Braley’s can be difficult to estimate without knowing its specific contents. However, experts say NextGen’s payment was unusually large.
"In a state with the number of voters Iowa has, $177,000 seems like a very high value for a voter list," according to Jason Torchinsky, a campaign finance attorney with the firm HoltzmanVogelJosefiak.
Other groups paid Braley’s campaign far less for similar services. In 2013, the super PAC Americans for Responsible Solutions reported paying the campaign just $1,051.50 for an expense itemized as "list."
Neither NextGen nor the listed point of contact for Braley’s campaign responded to requests for comment on the complaint.
NextGen’s purchase price was $77,000 more than Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign paid for the Iowa Democratic Party’s voter list, and more than 17 times as much as the Iowa GOP charged the presidential exploratory committee of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2011.
The lack of details on those purchases makes it difficult to know whether the contents of those lists are comparable to Braley’s.
Braley’s list "presumably…would have primarily included voter data for a single state," FACT notes. "However, in another case, the FEC has approved the lease of a nationwide voter list for a lesser amount of $133,841,70," suggesting that the "large amount paid for a smaller list … may be above market value."
A FEC spokeswoman said she could not comment on any open cases or ongoing enforcement proceedings.
The complaint comes as Steyer’s group is building its political operation in Iowa. In addition to its list purchase, it has rented office space from Bluprint Strategies, a Des Moines-based Democratic consultancy that employs a former NextGen Iowa field organizer.
Steyer is already backing Clinton’s candidacy. He will host a fundraiser for the former secretary of state at his San Francisco home this week despite Clinton’s reticence to take a position on the Keystone XL pipeline, Steyer’s pet cause. He also donated between $100,000 and $250,000 to the Clinton Foundation last year.
NextGen is also active on four Iowa college campuses and will hold a "day of action" in the state this weekend.