We all know that campaign finance laws in the United States are about as airtight as a cardboard submarine. But for the first time that we can recall, somebody is going to jail for violating campaign finance regulations — and that somebody is directly connected to the Colorado Republican Party.
As the Associated Press reports:
A Republican political operative was sentenced to two years in prison Friday after becoming the first person convicted of illegally coordinating campaign contributions between a super PAC and a congressional campaign.
Tyler Harber, 34, of Alexandria apologized at his sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court. He said he knew what he was doing was wrong, but he did it anyway because of his desire to win elections and his belief that the law banning such coordination is routinely ignored in the political world…
…Richard Pilger, director of the Justice Department’s Election Crimes branch, said a stiff sentence was needed as a deterrent because the crime itself is so difficult to detect that fear of a lengthy prison sentence may be one of the only ways to keep political operatives in line.
If the name Tyler Harber sounds familiar to you, it should. Harber’s name began to surface earlier this year in the context of the State Republican Party’s March election for State Chairman. Harber and his political firm, Harden Global, worked closely with former State Republican Chair Ryan Call in recent years; Call lost his bid for re-election to Steve House partially because of this dubious connection, which was once part of a plan touted as Call’s “brain child.”
Here’s why this matters. In Citizens United and other cases in recent years, the US Supreme Court has relaxed many of the rules surrounding campaign finance, with the result that outside groups like super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts to help or oppose a candidate. One of the remaining restrictions is that outside groups and official candidate campaigns can’t coordinate their efforts—but politicos have found novel ways to get around that rule. And the Federal Elections Commission, which is in charge of regulating such behavior, is gridlocked along partisan lines and hasn’t been able to agree on how to respond.
So, the fact that federal prosecutors have decided to get involved, and that they actually busted someone, is a fairly big deal.
At the same time, campaign finance can be arcane stuff, and the congressional campaign in question was in Viriginia. In many states, the news likely didn’t find a spot in the local, or even national, sections of the daily newspaper.
But in Colorado, it should have. Tyler Harber, the man at the center of this story, was the person tapped last year by the state Republican Party to head up an independent expenditure committee—akin to a super PAC, though the party doesn’t use that term—with ties to the state GOP last year. [Pols emphasis]
Back in February, Call compared Harber’s misdeeds to getting a traffic ticket…an analogy that seems particularly absurd now that Harber is looking at 2 years in jail. It will be interesting to see if charges of illegal coordination begin to make their way through the ranks of the Colorado GOP, or if Harber was able to fall on the grenade entirely.
This is a big win for Colorado Ethics Watch, among others, but also for American voters in general. Campaign finance laws absolutely need to be improved; we’re moving in the right direction, at least, by actually enforcing the existing laws.