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FEC lets Peter Thiel-funded super PAC off the hook

Bryan Metzger   

FEC lets Peter Thiel-funded super PAC off the hook
  • The FEC dismissed a complaint saying a pro-JD Vance super PAC funded by Peter Thiel broke the law.
  • The complaint revolved around an obscure Medium webpage containing data about the Ohio Senate race.

The Federal Election Commission on Wednesday voted to dismiss a complaint that accused both Sen. JD Vance's campaign and a super PAC funded primarily by the tech billionaire Peter Thiel of violating federal-election laws.

The complaint, filed in June 2022 by the Campaign Legal Center and End Citizens United, focused on the existence of an obscure Medium webpage set up by the Protect Ohio Values PAC. The page contained troves of materials seemingly intended for use by Vance's campaign and other potential supporters, including polling data, B-roll camera footage, opposition research, and other strategy documents that included advice for how to secure an endorsement from former President Donald Trump. The Super PAC had been accused of aiding Vance in both the Ohio GOP Senate primary and in the general election against his Democratic opponent, former Rep. Tim Ryan.

Super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations, are legally barred from coordinating with or donating directly to politicians' campaigns. The Campaign Legal Center and End Citizens United argued that those materials were essentially illegal contributions to Vance, given that his campaign could presumably access the materials.

But commissioners voted 5-1 to dismiss the complaint, with the panel's general counsel arguing that the materials were technically publicly available to anyone. Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic-appointed commissioner, was the sole vote against.

"I'm gratified that a bipartisan group at the FEC has rightly rejected this baseless, headline-seeking complaint," Luke Thompson, the executive director of the super PAC, told Business Insider.

"The Supreme Court's entire premise for allowing unlimited spending in Citizens United was based on the prohibition of coordination between campaigns and super PACs," Jonas Edwards-Jenks, the communications director for End Citizens United, said. "The FEC has completely disregarded that fundamental principle in this decision."

Vance's campaign declined to comment.

An increasingly common loophole in campaign-finance law

Saurav Ghosh, the director of federal campaign-finance reform at the Campaign Legal Center, told Business Insider that the decision was "consistent with the FEC's refusal to enforce its coordination rules."

In recent years, the Campaign Legal Center has consistently argued that the six-member commission, evenly divided between Democratic and Republican appointees, has failed to effectively enforce campaign-finance laws.

"Their idea of what is 'coordinated' is so narrow and constricted that they're setting it up so they're never going to find coordination," Ghosh said.

Ghosh also said that Vance may not be where he is now — a US senator who's in contention to be Trump's vice presidential pick — if it weren't for the efforts of the super PAC. The GOP Senate primary in Ohio was contentious in 2022, with several well-known candidates competing to take on Ryan.

"A sizable gift from Peter Thiel was essentially his golden ticket," Ghosh said. "This super PAC was keeping him afloat as a candidate with research, messaging ideas, and all of the stuff that basically allowed him to remain viable."

Thiel provided $15 million of the group's nearly $20 million war chest. Other major donors included the venture capitalist David Sacks and the conservative financier Rebekah Mercer. The group primarily spent money on TV and digital ads, mailers, and text-message solicitations.

In recent years, it's become increasingly common for campaigns and super PACs to use public websites to get around existing campaign-finance laws.

Both Democratic and Republican campaigns frequently make use of so-called "red boxes" — public webpages on their campaign sites containing photos and talking points — to provide message guidance to super PACs that may support them. One recent study found that 240 congressional candidates used the tactic in 2022.

It doesn't always go well, however.

The use of a public website to communicate between a super PAC and campaign backfired spectacularly during the 2024 presidential primary, when a webpage containing debate-strategy memos intended for Gov. Ron DeSantis was discovered by reporters before the first debate, embarrassing his campaign.

Those materials had been funded by Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting the Florida governor.

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