Federal prosecutors don’t often file criminal charges involving campaign finance violations, but when they do the guilty rarely spend time behind bars.
In fact, of 26 criminal cases involving illegal contributions dating back to 1997, only six resulted in the guilty parties going to prison, and most everybody else received either probation or home detention, according to a sentencing memo in a recent case in federal court in Washington.
“Although it is not always the case, generally such defendants have received sentences of probation that include, as conditions of probation, some combination of terms of confinement,” such as home detention, the Justice Department noted in its sentencing memo in a case against Evan Snapper.
Officials at the department did not immediately respond to questions about the memo, and they previously declined to comment on questions about the case for which it was filed.
Prosecutors filed the memo before Snapper was sentenced to probation last month in federal court in Washington. He pleaded guilty to illegally bundling $48,300 in campaign contributions for the 2008 presidential campaign of then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. In turn, the campaign “unwittingly” filed false reports with the Federal Election Commission, prosecutors said.
He also bundled $9,000 for former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III’s Senate and presidential campaigns, a court memo says.
Defense lawyer Bruce Udolf, a former federal prosecutor in charge of corruption cases for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida, said it’s not surprising that so many defendants receive probation instead of prison time.
“Not every crime requires a substantial amount of jail time to serve as a deterrent,” he said. “Just the stigma of being charged and prosecuted and having a felony [record] should be a deterrent.”
However, Mr. Udolf also noted that the overall number of prosecutions appears “fantastically low,” adding that he’s familiar with about 20 cases and that case law in the area is fairly sparse.
Mr. Udolf said that doesn’t mean there aren’t more violations. He said prosecutors have the discretion on where and how to focus their resources. And he said campaign finance cases are often complex and require a tremendous amount of resources that could be better used in other ways.
Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School and a campaign finance specialist, said that while there are more probationary sentences, recent cases involving more than $10,000 in illegal campaign contributions show sentences ranging from two to five years in prison.
“So it appears that the trajectory is toward stiffer penalties,” Mr. Briffault said.
Last year, former lobbyist Paul Magliocchetti was sentenced to 27 months in prison for making more than $400,000 in illegal campaign contributions.
In a 2006 case, William DeLoach pleaded guilty to conspiracy and one count of making an illegal contribution. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
In 2005, Charles Hildebrant was sentenced to five years after pleading guilty to bank fraud, filing a false income tax and making illegal campaign donations to President George W. Bush’s campaign.
Among the recent cases that resulted in probation, Snapper faced up to 16 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. But he was given three years of probation after his defense attorney noted that he cooperated with the government.
He pleaded guilty to covering up contributions from funds that belonged to novelist Patricia Cornwell, whose finances he managed. She’s now suing him and the firm he worked for, accusing him of mishandling her money.
While Snapper said he made the contributions as a favor to Ms. Cornwell, her attorneys said in recent civil court filings that she did nothing wrong and that Snapper was the sole target in the federal campaign finance investigation.
Perhaps the biggest campaign finance case filed in recent memory has yet to be resolved, with former Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, facing felony charges that he accepted illegal campaign contributions to hide his affair and out-of-wedlock child. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine. Mr. Edwards has pleaded not guilty.