News broke late last week that the Federal Election Commission had opened a preliminary inquiry into whether Russians illegally channeled money to the National Rifle Association to support Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
But the FEC’s move, which came after a complaint from a Democratic group, amounts to little more than a standard response, experts say. It will likely be months before the matter moves up through the appropriate channels and the controversy-averse panel of commissioners votes on whether to launch a formal investigation. And they’re highly unlikely to vote to do so.
“Until the commission actually acts and votes — and they need four votes to open an actual investigation — it’s not really an investigation,” former FEC chairwoman Ann Ravel told TPM in a Monday phone call. “It’s just a sort of looking at the publicly available facts.”
According to Ravel, a Democrat appointed by President Barack Obama, that preliminary look could include examining existing campaign finance records already filed by the NRA, but won’t involve requesting new documents from the group.*
“There is no evidence gathering from the NRA, as a preliminary matter,” she said. “This would be highly unusual.”
And Ravel said it’s an extreme long-shot that the panel, which currently includes two appointees from each party, would vote to open a full-blown investigation.
“It would take everybody to agree to do it, which is highly unlikely,” said Ravel, who has publicly criticized the FEC’s Republican members for what she views as their unwillingness to enforce campaign finance laws.
Brad Woodhouse, the treasurer of ADLF and a long-time Democratic operative, provided to TPM the FEC’s response letter. The letter confirms receipt of the complaint, and lays out the process to determine whether the agency will open a formal probe.
“To the extent that Federal Election Commission is looking into this, we’re obviously pleased,” Woodhouse told TPM in a Monday phone call. “All of these financial transactions and relationships between the Trump campaign and Russia are presumably part of Mueller’s investigation, but this very specific allegation that we outlined in our complaint, that the NRA accepted illegal foreign money to do election activities in support of President Trump, is quite firmly an issue for the Federal Election Commission to investigate.”
“We hope that what we received from them, while probably standard, means they are taking this seriously and planning to investigate,” Woodhouse added.
It’s possible that Politico, which reported that the FEC was looking into the matter, has information suggesting that the agency is taking a more serious look than is typical into the issue.
The FEC cannot by law confirm or deny the existence of pending investigations.
“As you probably know, the Commissioners have to vote at many junctures when considering an enforcement matter, including a vote to authorize an investigation,” an agency spokesperson told TPM in a statement. “That vote would take place only after the Office of General Counsel produces a report on the allegations — after respondents have been given an opportunity to respond to those allegations — and recommendations on how to handle the matter.”
In fact, that explanation downplays the complexity of the process. Most FEC investigations start with a complaint, which is referred to a body in the general counsel’s office — known as the Complaints Examination & Legal Administration (CELA) office — for processing. Complainants receive notification that their documents have been filed — that’s the letter Woodhouse received — while respondents receive a heads up and are given a 15-day period in which they can provide evidence challenging the complaint’s validity. If it moves forward, CELA decides where the complaint should be prioritized among the long list of matters already awaiting FEC consideration.
The general counsel’s office then spends considerable time gathering facts and putting together a report laying out a recommendation for whether or not there is “reason to believe” the respondent has violated or is about to violate election law. Finally, the commission votes on whether to initiate a full investigation.
The chronically short-staffed agency is currently down two commissioners. Republican Lee Goodman resigned abruptly in February, leaving only two Republicans and two Democrats on what is typically a six-person panel. At least four commissioners need to vote together in order for any probe to get underway.
The FEC is notoriously hamstrung by partisan bias and averse to involving itself in high-profile, partisan legal matters. The ADLF’s complaint touches on red-hot issues including the federal Russia probe, the funding sources of the country’s largest gun lobby, the 2016 presidential campaign, and dark money ads.
Still, the agency is only one potential avenue for probing whether the NRA received Russian money and used it for political ends. McClatchy has reported that the FBI is investigating the issue. And Democrats in the Senate and House have asked questions of the gun group.
*This sentence has been edited to clarify the FEC’s process.