Watchdog Accuses Trump Campaign of Masking 'Unprecedented' $170M As List of Complaints Grows

A nonpartisan watchdog group called President Donald Trump's recent alleged campaign finance violation "unprecedented in its size and scale," adding to a growing list of instances in which his team has pushed the ethical boundaries of federal finance law.

On Tuesday, the Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging that Trump's campaign paid more than $170 million to companies affiliated with Brad Parscale and other officials without disclosing the ultimate recipients of the money.

"I have never seen anything this large," Trevor Potter, the president of the Campaign Legal Center and a former chairman of the FEC, told Newsweek. "Hiding how a campaign is spending its money is a flat violation of federal law."

Potter added that it's "accurate to say it's unprecedented in its size and scale of nondisclosure."

The 82-page complaint said that by using the Parscale-linked firm American Made Media Consultants (AMCC), the president's campaign has kept hidden the names of some vendors and advisers being paid by the campaign including Lara Trump, the wife of Eric Trump, and Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr.

Earlier reporting from the New York Times had indicated that Trump family members and associates were being paid large sums by the campaign through the former campaign managers flagship firm Parscale Strategy. Parscale was replaced at the top of the campaign earlier this month by Bill Stepien.

In response to the complaint, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtagh defended the campaign's affiliation with the Parscale-linked group in a statement to Newsweek.

"AMMC is a campaign vendor responsible for arranging and executing media buys and related services at fair market value. AMMC does not earn any commissions or fees. It builds efficiencies and saves the campaign money by providing these in-house services that otherwise would be done by outside vendors. The campaign reports all payments to AMMC as required by the FEC. The campaign complies with all campaign finance laws and FEC regulations," Murtagh said.

Paul Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, told Newsweek that "the Campaign Legal Center rightly identifies a growing problem in campaign finance practices and one that the Trump campaign has taken to the extreme."

However, it's not the first time the Trump team has raised eyebrows over its finances. Earlier this month it was reported that Trump's businesses were raking in money from his 2020 campaign. The president's properties have made over $17 million from the campaign and his joint fundraising committees since 2016, according to CNBC.

Salon, too, reported Tuesday that the Trump campaign continued to pay White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany up to $12,000 even after she left the re-election team for her position in the administration. McEnany told the outlet that "the campaign overpaid me, and I immediately paid them back."

Then there was the hush-money scheme that involved payment to two women to keep quiet about alleged affairs with Trump just prior to the 2016 election. That investigation ended with Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney, being sentenced to three years in prison for campaign finance violations and other financial crimes.

president donald trump campaign finance complaint
President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn after he landing aboard Marine One at the White House July 27, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty

It's not clear how the FEC will handle Tuesday's complaint. The commission currently lacks the "quorum" of four commissioners needed to enforce campaign finance laws or handle alleged violations. A fourth commissioner, Allen Dickerson, has been appointed by Trump but is likely to face opposition from Democrats in Congress.

Ryan said the best-case scenario for the Campaign Legal Center is that the FEC agrees there is a violation and fines the Trump campaign. But the president's team could refuse to pay, which could result in the FEC dragging them into federal court with a civil lawsuit.

The FEC has punished campaigns before for concealing payments. The most recent example is the fine they levied against presidential candidate Michele Bachmann in 2012 after her campaign paid an Iowa official for their endorsement but masked the money.

In 2016, the Campaign Legal Center filed a similar complaint against the Hillary Clinton campaign. Clinton's team paid its law firm Perkins Coie, which then paid the firm Fusion GPS, for opposition research on Trump's ties to Russia. But Fusion GPS was never included in financial reports to the FEC. The complaint filed by the watchdog hasn't yet been resolved, but Potter said the amount of money in the Clinton case is far less than what is happening with Trump.

"Obviously the scale is radically different. I think it's about one half of 1 percent of what the Trump campaign is doing at this point," Potter said.

Michael Beckel, the research director for the campaign finance overhaul group Issue One, agreed that Trump's case is unique but acknowledged there is a growing trend of campaigns obscuring financial data.

"It's highly unusual, and it flies in the face of the spirit of our transparency laws," Beckel told Newsweek. "Unfortunately, tactics to obfuscate campaign spending are becoming increasingly common by candidates on both sides of the aisle. When campaigns only disclose payments to vendors who plan to hire subcontractors for the services involved, it keeps the public in the dark and helps subcontractors avoid scrutiny."