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Georgia Republican Kelly Loeffler is the richest member of the United States Senate, but that hasn’t stopped the appointed senator from making an illegal pitch for money to fund her embattled bid for a full term in the chamber.
Loeffler is locked in a January 5 runoff race with the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat who finished ahead of her in the initial voting on November 3. She’s mounting a desperate campaign that is filling the Atlanta airwaves with an onslaught of negative ads and, though the multimillionaire could afford to buy them herself, Loeffler’s instead appealing for money from across the country to pay for what could turn out to be the most expensive Senate campaign in history.
That’s what the senator did November 18, when she appeared on a Fox News program from the Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda. Loeffler wasn’t talking about Senate business that day. She was talking politics, and, after attacking Warnock repeatedly, the senator announced, “Well look, we know that hundreds of millions of dark, liberal money is pouring into our state. That’s why it’s so important that everyone across the country get involved. They can visit KellyforSenate.com to chip in five or 10 bucks, and get involved, volunteer.”
The appeal was a direct request for campaign money, made inside a federal building. That’s illegal. The section of the Code of Laws of the United States of America dealing with the solicitation of campaign funds inside federal buildings, 18 USC 607, plainly states:
It shall be unlawful for an individual who is an officer or employee of the Federal Government, including the President, Vice President, and Members of Congress, to solicit or receive a donation of money or other thing of value in connection with a Federal, State, or local election, while in any room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties by an officer or employee of the United States, from any person.
The code outlines tough penalties for wrongdoers: “A person who violates this section shall be fined not more than $5,000, imprisoned not more than 3 years, or both.”
Loeffler’s appeal was also in conflict with US Senate ethics rules, which state clearly that “Senate Members and staff may not receive or solicit campaign contributions in any federal building.”
Loeffler’s not the first embattled Republican to have gotten caught crossing legal and ethical lines in pursuit of campaign cash. In October, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham was called out for pleading in a televised appearance from outside the room where the Senate Judiciary Committee was deliberating on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, “I don’t know how much [the hearing] affected fundraising today, but if you want to help me close the gap, lindseygraham.com. A little bit goes a long way.” That comment led US Representative Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who is a former prosecutor, to highlight federal laws barring such activities and declare, “This is a crime. [Lindsey Graham] committed a crime in plain sight.” An ethics complaint was filed against Graham, though it has yet to be resolved by the lethargic Senate Ethics Committee.
Loeffler’s pitch was a good deal more more blatant than Graham’s. She mentioned explicit dollar amounts and specifically asked donors to “chip in” to her campaign. And watchdog groups noticed. The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center has filed a complaint, which asks the Ethics Committee to mount “a swift investigation” into what the organization describes as a “blatant violation of rules that prohibits political fundraising on federal property.”
“If the Ethics Committee again fails to review this matter and hold both Graham and Loeffler accountable, the Senate will establish a dangerous precedent that solicitations of campaign contributions on federal property are permissible,” warn the center’s general counsel, Kedric Payne, and Delaney Marsco, a legal counsel who focuses on ethics issues. “Such a result conflicts not only with the Ethics Committee’s unequivocal rules and guidance, but also a fundamental principle of ethical public service: that federal resources are not to be used for political purposes.”
The American Democracy Legal Fund has also filed a complaint. That organization’s president, Brad Woodhouse, says that Loeffler’s “fundraising solicitation from the Capitol was illegal, plain and simple.”
The Georgia Democratic Party has filed its own complaint, along with a request that the Department of Justice investigate Loeffler’s televised fundraising appeal. “Senator Kelly Loeffler has once again chosen to use her position of power for personal and political advantage by illegally asking for donations on national television while on federal property,” says Scott Hogan, the party’s executive director. “She broke not only Senate rules but also federal law.”
Loeffler’s apologists have mounted a novel defense that suggests the legal ban on senators soliciting money inside federal buildings is intended merely to prevent legislators from meeting with donors in their offices or making fundraising calls on official phones. But that’s absurd.
The Senate Ethics Manual specifically states that “no activities of a political solicitation nature should occur with the support of any federal resources [staff or space] in order to avoid any question that a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 607 has occurred” (emphasis added). The whole point of the rules barring senators from begging for campaign cash inside federal buildings—whether they’re “dialing for dollars” or appearing on national television and asking donors to “chip in”—is to prevent them from leveraging their offices to benefit their election bids. Loeffler took the swampiest part of politics out of the back room and amplified it on national television. If she is not held to account, then the message will be that ethics standards and the rule of law do not apply to the millionaires and billionaires who seek to make the Congress of the United State their privileged playground.