Saturday, June 13, 2015

OMG, you can go to prison for illegal campaign coordination! Who knew?


Hmm, back in February 2011 (the same month that "Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power") Fox Noise couldn't seem to figure out whether Tyler Harber was "President, Wilson Research Strategies" or -- as he was identified in a graphic seconds later -- "VP AND DIRECTOR OF POLITICAL AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS DIVISION AT WRS." The following year Elections and Campaigns magazine would name the Republican consultant a "Rising Star."

"It was something I had seen other people do."
-- Republican political operative Tyler Harber, at his sentencing
hearing yesterday in Federal District Court in Richmond (VA)

by Ken

To be sure, with regard to the charges to which he was pleading guilty yesterday, Tyler did admit to Judge Liam O'Grady: "I did it, it was wrong when I did it, and I knew it was wrong when I did it." But then, clearly the federal prosecutors with whom he had arranged his guilty plea had made it clear that he wasn't going to be allowed to use the ever-popular "Everybody Does It" Defense. Nevertheless, he was apparently allowed to point out that he had seen other people do what he did: breaching the legally mandated firewall between a supposedly independent-of-campaigns super PAC and a political campaign (channeling some of the booty to his sister) and fibbing to the FBI about it. (As we all know, the FBI is free to lie to you in an investigation or interrogation, but you can't lie to the FBI.)

One wonders what Supreme Court Justice "Slow Anthony" Kennedy would make of our Tyler, the latest celebrity warrior in the Republican Campaign to Free America of the Menace of Free and Fair Elections (though for reasons we'll go into not acclaimed as a hero by the official Republicans leading the Campaign to Free America of the Menace of Free and Fair Elections), who was sentenced yesterday to two years in the pokey by Judge O'Grady, Slow Anthony's colleague on the federal bench.

It was, as I recall, that esteemed jurist Slow Anthony who disposed of the challenge to the sanctified form of speech known as "money" by declaring that we have no evidence that it causes corruption of our political system. That was, after all, the only reason a jurist of Slow Anthony's esteemed caliber could imagine for even considering interfering with such a divinely ordained right.

The clincher, as I recall the judicial "reasoning," was that elections are not always won by the candidate who spends the most money. This is a conclusion so stupid that you would have thought it landed him on the "tilt" side of the "Too Stupid to Be Entitled to an Opinion" Rule, except that our judicial system doesn't have such a rule.

For that matter, one wonders what our Tyler would think of Justice Slow Anthony if he was told that the justice doesn't believe in the power of money to corrupt our political system. Surely Tyler would wonder why the mean justice was denying the very basis of his life's work. And I don't think it would help to assure Tyler that not only Justice Slow Anthony but his thug-justice colleagues Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito have staked not just their careers but their lives as surely, not to mention a lot more successfully, on their faith in the politically corrupting power of money.


Once upon a time, way back in 2012, Tyler Harber was an official "Rising Star" in the campaign world:


V.P. and Director of Political Division, Wilson Research Strategies

Tyler Harber seeks to practice politics with military precision. A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, Harber originally wanted to join the armed services. “I was too short and too slow to go into the military,” he jokes. “So I went into politics.”

He studied military tactics in college and believes that the principles of Sun Tzu and Napoleon are well suited for politics. “I see campaigns as being very based in military strategy,” he says. “Successful campaigns are organized similarly.” Harber grew up in a politically active family in Knoxville. His first race was a city council campaign that lost by about 100 votes. He was then hired by an opponent for the run off. That candidate lost by 34 votes.

“Fortunately,” Harber says, “my results have gotten significantly better since then.” When Harber left Tennessee, he landed at Public Opinion Strategies where he worked for Neil Newhouse, one of the best in the business. Harber says he learned at lot there through his work on high profile races like Sen. Lamar Alexander’s 2002 campaign and other races in the South.

Harber left Public Opinion Strategies in 2007 to lead the political division at Wilson Research Strategies. In that role, he has overseen a rapid expansion of the firm. He expects to have between 350 and 400 political clients by the end of the year. Harber has also begun working overseas, most recently providing counsel to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.
Whatta guy! Alas, immediately following the above on the website now there's this boldface addendum:
Editorial note: Campaigns and Elections magazine revoked Harber's Rising Star award after he pleaded guilty to coordination of federal campaign contributions in February of 2015.
Oops! "Rising Star" comes crashing back to earth. And apparently he was just too flagrant about it to earn him the solidarity of fellow Republicans working to ensure the corruption of our elections, and the power of money to promote that corruption.


In the wake of his guilty plea to illegal campaign coordination, fellow Republicans couldn't run away from him fast enough. Virginia local political journalist Betty Bean wrote a piece called "The Rise and Fall of Tyler Harber," in which she told this story:
The last time I heard from Tyler was Nov. 12, 2014, when he sent me an email asking me to come up to D.C. to interview him. He said the Department of Justice was focusing on Republican consultants who were running super PACs:

“I’ve trusted you to write the truth before. Can I pay for you to come up here to meet me once more? One more interview,” he wrote.

“I need an impartial, reasonable, no BS-telling of why I’m going to federal prison for calling Obama a criminal repeatedly on national television. Are you up for a story with as much complexity as the series you wrote about me previously?

“Sooner rather than later. DoJ is pushing hard and I can’t hold them off too much longer. You’ve been the journalist I’ve trusted. Plus this is going to be a national story. I wanted to give you first dibs.

“Let me know. I know this is a very f’d-up request. But in the end of my political career, I’d much prefer that you write my ‘epitaph’ than the Times, Post or any other rag inside the beltway.

“Let me know.

“Best regards, Tyler”

Flabbergasted, I e-mailed him back, asking him to call me. He never responded.
Betty added:
Harber’s situation became brutally clear last week when the news broke that he’d pleaded guilty to illegally coordinating a political campaign with a super PAC he’d created, directing more than $300,000 to the campaign and diverting $138,000 of that to a company run by his mother.

The news brought back a flood of memories. . . .
It may be hard for Tyler to believe, but "calling Obama a criminal repeatedly on national television" doesn't get you indicted. The confusion may be understandable, though, because before Tyler's entanglement with the feds, you would have thought that "illegally coordinating a political campaign with a super PAC" didn't get you indicted either.

Eventually, as we've seen, Tyler seems to have admitted for the record that his legal problems weren't caused by repeatedly calling the president a criminal on national television -- although it's possible that the feds who decided to indict him smiled at the thought that he's that guy. As a matter of fact, as we're going to find out in a moment, Tyler was ratted out to the feds by a fellow Republican.


What has generated so much attention ever since Tyler's guilty plea was made known in February is that the Department of Justice was actually indicting someone for playing fast and loose with that mandated separation between super PAC and campaign, especially at a time when Jeb Bush, for one, has been betting that you can be pretty darned flagrant about it and nobody will say "Boo" to  you.

Certainly not the FEC. As the deck on Russ Choma's Mother Jones report on yesterday's sentencing argues: "The Justice Department is stepping in where Federal Election Commission has fallen down on the job." Russ reported:
The Department of Justice scored a victory Friday morning in the fight to rein in the campaign finance Wild West that has come with the rise of super-PACs: A GOP operative in Virginia was sentenced to two years in federal prison for breaking a small, but crucial, campaign finance law in the 2012 election. It's unclear whether this signals a sustained effort by the Justice Department to crack down on campaign finance law violators. But one thing's for sure: it's more than the grid-locked Federal Election Commission has done to enforce the law in this area.

There isn't much that a super PAC can't do under the 2010 Citizens United ruling. These outfits can raise and spend unlimited cash, soliciting funds from individuals and corporations alike. The one thing that can't happen is coordination between a super-PAC and a candidate for elected office. And that's the issue that was at the heart of the Justice Department's case against GOP operative Tyler Harber, once named a "rising star" by Campaigns and Elections magazine (since revoked), who was sentenced to two years in prison for illegal coordination and lying to the FBI.

Since Citizens United, it's been fairly clear that rules against coordination were being short-circuited, if not broken outright. Candidates' political aides have resigned from their campaigns only to resurface at the helm of super PACs supporting that very same candidate; parents and spouses of candidates have created super PACs and pour money in; most significantly, in the run up to 2016, Jeb Bush has merged his campaign with his super PAC, allowing him to raise unlimited amounts of money and hobnob with mega-donors, while hiding behind the excuse that he is not formally a candidate. Campaign finance reformers have cried foul over Bush's use of this loophole, but the reality is no one is likely to do anything about it. The FEC is, for all intents and purposes, putting itself on the bench this election cycle.

But, in lieu of FEC action to curb coordination, the Department of Justice may have sent a powerful message to political operatives across the country with Harber's sentencing today.

In federal court in Richmond, Virginia, Prosecutor Richard Pilger requested that the judge make an example of Harber to send a message to the rest of super PAC world. "The ideal that's really at issue here today is we have a fair campaign finance system," he told the judge, according to the Washington Post.

Harber admitted he was wrong, but the Post reported that he told the judge he didn't break the rules because of greed or power. He said he just got swept away in the post-Citizens United maelstrom of money and boundary-pushing. "I got caught up in what politics has become," he told the judge.

Despite being an up-and-coming operative, Harber was not a particularly powerful one. And he committed his crime while working on behalf of a no-chance congressional candidate who was routed by Democrat Rep. Gerry Connelly. He was no Karl Rove, and he didn't have the backing of a powerful politician or a deep-pocketed donor. In the world of super PACs, Harber was relatively low-hanging fruit.

Harber pleaded guilty to illegal coordination and lying to federal investigators about it, admitting to working as a campaign manager for the candidate and simultaneously playing a secret role in setting up a super PAC that raised $325,000 to run ads on the candidate's behalf. The money came mostly from a New York City real estate developer who had already donated the maximum to the campaign; Harber convinced him to give more to the super PAC, completely erasing any boundary between the campaign and the outside group. On top of that, he diverted more than a third of the super PAC's funds to a firm set up in his mother's name and spent most of that money for personal expenses. Then he threatened someone who confronted him over it and lied to FBI agents who interviewed him about the super PAC's creation.

In other words, he was very easy to prosecute. Even his own party had no love for him (a fellow Republican turned him in). Whether or not the Justice Department can or will take such a hard stance with other super PAC law-breakers—whose infractions may be more subtle—remains to be seen. But, if nothing else, today's sentencing shows that, post-Citizens United, there is still some campaign finance accountability.
Sound the message throughout the land: "There is still some campaign finance accountability." Hey, it's not much, but it's not nothing either, while the FEC slumbers.

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At 6:30 AM, Blogger lukeness said...

I think you mean Thomas, not Marshall, in your list of thug justices.

At 12:51 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Yes, of course, thanks, L!



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