- The Washington Times - Monday, February 29, 2016

A conservative watchdog is planning to send all 2016 presidential candidates a letter warning about the liability associated with accepting small-dollar donations online — mainly how foreign individuals can set up straw-man accounts to funnel money to candidates illegally.

On Friday, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont was flagged by the Federal Elections Commission for problems in his February finance report — citing possible impermissible contributions from U.S. citizens that exceeded the FEC’s $2,700 maximum threshold and barring donations from foreign individuals and unregistered political action committees.

Mr. Sanders is aiming to raise $40 million in February alone, mostly from small-dollar online donations.

“You are undoubtedly aware that it is illegal to accept donations from foreign citizens in any amount, as well as donations from U.S. citizens over $2,700,” Matthew Whitaker, the executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, wrote in the letter addressed to the campaigns’ treasuries, and obtained by The Washington Times. “Yet during past presidential campaigns there have been instances of individuals who attempted to make fraudulent donations in violation of these laws.”

Mr. Whitaker made reference to the Clinton administration scandal, where it was alleged foreign citizens, mainly from China, were attempting to use “straw donors” to make illegal contributions to the Democratic party.

The solicitation of campaign donations from foreign nationals is prohibited by the Federal Election Campaign Act, however the law was passed in the 1970s when the Internet and social media like Facebook didn’t exist, making it even easier in today’s age to willingly or unwillingly accept such donations. The FEC provides virtually zero oversight for Internet contributions, allowing the campaigns the latitude to police themselves.

President Obama was pulled into this issue when in 2012 the Government Accountability Institute said in a report that foreign individuals may have flooded his presidential campaign with contributions. The Internet site Obama.com was owned by a China-based businessman and redirected viewers to his official site barackobama.com to make donations.

In the 2008 race, then-presidential candidate Mr. Obama accepted a series of $25 donations from an individual who gave false identifying information online, which equaled thousands of dollars from a single unknown source, Mr. Whitaker said.

In the 2016 election cycle Internet fundraising has become even more prolific, with many campaigns like Mr. Sanders‘ and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s, collecting more than 70 percent of their contributions from small-dollar online donations.

“With the technological advancements of the Internet age, this fraudulent scheme has evolved to individuals giving false identifying information and making numerous fraudulent small dollar donations through a candidate’s website,” Mr. Whitaker warned. “If a false name and employer is provided, there is no way to ensure the donation is not form a foreign citizen, or below the legal disclosure and total donation limits.”

On Friday, it was reported that Mr. Sanders received a warning letter from the FEC saying the report lists amounts of contributions, receipts, expenses and disbursements “appear to be incorrect.”

The letter, which was first reported by USA Today, also cites “possible impermissible contributions that exceed the allowed limit per election cycle ($2,700 for individuals) along with donations that come from outside the United States and from unregistered political committees.”

The campaign has until March 31 to answer the FEC’s questions. In an email to USA Today, Mr. Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said the FEC’s questions were “standard” and the campaign would work with the agency to answer its questions.

Mr. Briggs noted Mr. Sanders‘ 85,391-page report covering the month of January listed over 125,000 separate contributions.

“These are not abstract concerns,” Mr. Whitaker wrote in the letter to the campaigns. “We expect that your campaign will take all necessary steps to ensure compliance and share with the public all of the proactive measures your campaign is taking to ensure that illegal foreign campaign cash does not corrupt this election.”

Over the past year, FACT has filed numerous complaints against both Republicans and Democrats.

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