The U.S. Department of Justice announced this afternoon its first criminal prosecution for violation of campaign finance laws prohibiting coordination between candidates and outside groups working on their behalf. Tyler Harber, 34, pleaded guilty to one count of coordinated federal election contributions, and one count of making false statements to the FBI.
According to federal court documents, Harber masterminded a complex scheme to coordinate a super PAC’s fundraising and expenditures in support of a Virginia candidate running for a U.S. House seat — all while working as the campaign manager for the candidate. Additionally, Harber acknowledged that he was personally paid a percentage of the super PAC’s expenditures, and he later lied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation agents investigating the case. The documents do not name the campaign and super PAC involved, but based on the description of the events, OpenSecrets.org data indicates that Harber was working for Chris Perkins, a Republican candidate who unsuccessfully challenged Democratic incumbent Rep. Gerry Connolly in Virginia’s Eleventh Congressional District.
While issues of coordination are not new in the super PAC era, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 and subsequent legal decisions substantially raised the stakes by allowing their creation and giving them the ability to raise and spend unlimited funds. A key tenet of the decision, however, was that while these groups can spend money to support a candidate, they cannot coordinate strategy or spending with the campaign; otherwise the unlimited donations to the outside group become, in reality, donations to the campaign. There has been growing suspicion that there is indeed coordination between some super PACs and the candidates they back, but this is the first federal prosecution for such activity.