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2016 Election Interference Results in Third-Largest FEC Fine in History, but It Doesn’t Involve Trump or Russia

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has slapped a super PAC that backed Jeb Bush for president with one of the biggest fines in the commission’s history for accepting a $1.3 million donation from a Chinese-owned company.

The super PAC, Right to Rise USA, has been ordered to pay $390,000 for accepting the donation from the company American Pacific International Capital, which is owned by Chinese nationals, according to a letter dated March 8. The letter is directed to a representative of the Campaign Legal Center, an organization that filed a complaint to the FEC after a 2016 report by The Intercept revealed that APIC’s foreign owners had donated to the super PAC.

“Today’s action is a rare and remarkable step by the FEC and a reminder that safeguarding our elections against foreign interference is in America’s vital national security interests,” Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement Monday.

gettyimages-1037386220-594x594 The Federal Election Commission's headquarters in Washington. The commission has slapped a super PAC that backed Jeb Bush for president with one of the biggest fines in its history. Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

"This illegal $1.3 million contribution is unmistakable proof that Citizens United opened the floodgates to foreign money in the U.S., and it is surely the tip of the iceberg," he continued, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court decision on political spending.

"The fact that the FEC, which so often deadlocks and therefore fails to act on violations, could agree on this one highlights the very real danger this sort of activity poses to our democracy," Potter said.

In the three years since the election, much of the country has been following the numerous investigations into Russian attempts to sway the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. Special counsel Robert Mueller has been looking into whether members of the Trump campaign participated in those election interference efforts. However, U.S. intelligence chiefs have also warned of the threat posed to elections by China.

Monday’s fine is the largest issued since the Citizens United ruling, which determined that the Constitution's free speech clause prohibits the government from restricting spending on “electioneering communication.”   

The FEC found that Right to Rise USA and its treasurer, Charles Spies, violated 52 U.S. Code § 30121, which prohibits donations and contributions by foreign nationals.

“After an investigation, the Commission entered into separate conciliation agreements with 1) American Pacific International Capital, Inc., Wilson Chen, Gordon Tang, and Huaidan Chen, 2) Right to Rise USA and Charles Spies in his official capacity as treasurer,” the letter notes. 

APIC has been ordered to pay $550,000, bringing the total in fines to $940,000, the third largest in FEC history. The company is headquartered in San Francisco, according to its website, and owns luxury hotels in China.

At the time it made the donation, APIC was allegedly in business with Bush’s brother Neil, a businessman and investor, Mother Jones reported Monday. Neil had reportedly asked several of the company’s officials, both of whom were Chinese nationals, to help secure the donation for the super PAC that was backing his brother's presidential campaign.

During his brief run for the Republican nomination in 2015, Jeb Bush slammed then-candidate Donald Trump’s attacks on China. He also claimed that China’s increasingly influential position on the global stage is “a good thing if it goes in the right direction.”

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