John McCain’s campaign is still being audited by the Federal Elections Commission, while Obama – the only presidential candidate in history since the public finance system was established to decline public funds during the general election – may have escaped similar scrutiny by the FEC.
An FEC spokesman told WND that the commission is obligated to complete an audit of McCain’s campaign because he received public funds during the general election.
“Under regulations, that is automatically audited by the FEC once you receive public funds,” he said. “For the Obama committee, there’s a possibility, just like with any other committee, that he could be audited. He didn’t receive public funds, but the commission has jurisdiction to audit his committee.”
Asked whether the FEC has plans to audit the Obama campaign as well, he said, “We wouldn’t be able to comment on that until after any audit report was finalized. I couldn’t even confirm or deny whether that’s happening.”
Public financing option
Presidential contenders are allowed to accept public financing options during the primary and general presidential elections. In 2008, the general election financing program – a funding option covering the period of time from a candidate’s official nomination until Election Day – offered a grant of approximately $84.1 million. The money is collected from the $3 check box that many taxpayers mark on income tax returns to help pay for presidential campaigns. Candidates who accept public financing are prohibited from raising or spending additional funds during the general election, except for legal and accounting expenses.
Throughout much of his campaign, Obama pledged to take public financing in the general election. But Obama later opted out of public financing – setting himself up for an extraordinary cash advantage over his opponent.
Obama had originally pledged to use the $84 million in public money if his Republican rival did the same.
In March 2006, the Obama campaign said that he would “aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election” if he won the primary.
At a June 29, 2006, constituents breakfast in Illinois, Obama declared, “Well, I strongly support public financing.” Again, in a Jan. 24, 2007, interview with CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Obama said, “I’m a big believer in public financing of campaigns. And I think that for a time, the presidential public financing system works.”
Obama made similar statements into 2008, and the New York Times reported that Obama and McCain announced that they had made a deal to accept public financing.
But Obama’s campaign began to back away from his previous statements and pledge as his popularity increased and campaign contributions poured in.
He became the first presidential candidate since the public finance system was established in 1971 to opt out of general election public funding.
Obama had a record intake of nearly $750 million over the course of his campaign. He experienced a massive fundraising advantage in the final weeks leading up to the election. McCain by contrast raised less than $350 million during the primaries and election. From September to November 2008, he was limited to the $84.1 million he accepted in federal funds.
In the final two months of the race, Obama spent nearly $170 million on TV advertising, compared with $61 million by the McCain campaign, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group
Obama outspent McCain by wide margins in every battleground state.
The Campaign Finance Institute reported that Obama collected about 26 percent of his total from donors who contributed less than $200.
In October 2008, the RNC announced it would file a fundraising complaint with the FEC against Obama’s campaign, charging that Obama accepted illegal donations from foreigners and financial gifts that exceeded the $2,300-per-person federal limits from U.S. citizens. The FEC reportedly flagged at least 16,639 potential foreign donations to Obama’s campaign.
Federal campaign finance law requires campaigns to provide names, addresses, occupations and employers of every donor who gives more than $200. The campaign refused to divulge names of smaller donors. According to a Newsweek report, the FEC asked the campaign about several questionable contributors, including one person listed as “Good Will” who gave more than $11,000 in $10 and $25 increments. Another donor, “Doodad Pro,” gave $17,130 in similarly small amounts. Other donors reportedly identified themselves as “Daffy Duck,” “Bart Simpson” and “King Kong.”
An Obama campaign spokesman told Newsweek the campaign returned the donations.
The Washington Post reported that Obama’s campaign accepted donations by untraceable prepaid credit cards. The National Journal reported that his campaign didn’t even match names of contributors using credit cards with names and addresses of the card holders.
But, the ultimate decision on whether to approve a “for cause” audit is up to the six commissioners who run the Federal Election Commission.
In his December 2008 Heritage Foundation commentary, legal scholar Hans A. von Spakovsky wrote:
From a legal standpoint, this should be an easy vote. Serious issues were raised in numerous media reports chronicling the Obama campaign’s probable violations of federal law. If the career staff at the FEC follow the ordinary, regulatory model of investigations, they will recommend such an audit to the commissioners. However, the odds are that the three Democratic commissioners will be under enormous pressure to vote “no.” Some members of their party may make it clear that their professional and political careers in Washington will be finished if they vote to approve such an audit. Since it takes four votes for the FEC to take any action, at least one of those Democratic commissioners will have to join with the three Republicans to approve an audit.
So while the FEC completes a rigorous audit of McCain’s campaign that could take years and cost the former presidential candidate millions of dollars to defend, some expect Obama will escape scrutiny because he declined the $84 million public grant that automatically triggers an audit.
“The Obama committee raised private funds, and that committee is not automatically eligible for audit,” the FEC spokesman told WND. “But it has the potential to be audited just like any other committee that raises money. Obama was the only presidential candidate who declined public funds at the general election level.”