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Jeb Bush's Super PAC under fire as candidacy announcement looms

As the Republican presidential hopeful travels to Europe, Jeb Bush faces questions over months of fund-raising as an undeclared candidate. Critics claim Bush has broken the law, as Ryan Snyder reports from Washington.

Jeb Bush plans to announce his candidacy for the 2016 US presidential election following a trip to Europe this week that will see him visit Poland, Germany, and Estonia. The overseas visit aims to bolster foreign policy credentials amid recent crises over Ukraine and the Middle East.

The definitive announcement comes after the ongoing will-he-won't-he debate that has encircled the former Florida governor since December when he said he would "actively explore" a potential run for the White House. In January he started a number of fund-raising entities including the Right to Rise Super PAC - which have since raised tens of millions of dollars. Critics say his actions amount to a knowing violation of federal campaign finance laws.

Democracy21, a non-profit group that opposes private money in politics, and Campaign Legal Center, which monitors campaign finance laws, both filed formal complaints with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) against Jeb Bush and three other Republican presidential hopefuls. The most recent complaint - filed on May 27 and addressed to Attorney General Loretta Lynch - includes the groups' claim that Bush "violates the candidate contribution limits enacted to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption."

In a nutshell, the groups say that Bush's refusal to officially declare himself a candidate allowed him to use loopholes in the campaign finance system to garner vast amounts of funding - what they call "dark money." At the heart of the issue is so-called "Super PACs" (Political Action Committees), which came onto the campaign scene in 2010. Super PACs are political finance vehicles that allow corporations, unions, individuals, or associations to spend unlimited amounts of money in an effort to either support or oppose a political candidate. But they are not allowed to make direct donations to their supported candidate and - crucially - they are not allowed to work directly with that particular candidate.

Bush's critics say that's why he's been so slow to announce. As long as he is not a declared candidate, that crucial limitation does not apply.

So far Bush's arrangement has been lucrative. As of the end of May, the Right to Rise Super PAC is believed to have raised upwards of $100 million (90 million euros) for his presidential run. Bush reportedly told a group of donors in April that his team had raised more money than any other political operation ever.

Some are questioning whether Bush will adhere to the rules even after he declares. They point to the leadership of the Super PAC - many close allies who have worked with the former governor for decades.

Bush insists he has acted in good faith and has simply used the time to explore his options.

Hillary Rodham Clinton Video Verkündigung Kandidatur Präsidentin

Clinton is said to have 'broadly followed the rules'

Finding loopholes, bending the rules

So if he's not a candidate, what's the problem?

The problem, Democracy21 and Campaign Legal Center say in their May 27 complaint, is that he acts like one: "In all pertinent respects, Bush has been engaging in activities as an active candidate at least since January 2015. He has been traveling extensively to early primary states since [then], and has been speaking and organizing in those states."

Another factor is the money. As stated in the filed complaint, "an individual becomes a candidate if the individual raises 'funds in excess of what could reasonably be expected to be used for exploratory activities or undertakes activities designed to amass campaign funds that would be spent after he or she becomes a candidate.'"

Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center, spoke with DW about his group's complaint. "There's just no way he has spent almost $100 million just in 'testing the waters'."

Bush is not the first presidential hopeful to "test the waters" of candidacy. Most, if not all, potential candidates undergo a certain amount of pantomime before officially announcing. Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic hopeful, took her time before officially declaring in April, a hesitation that brought with it much media speculation. However, Ryan believes she broadly followed the rules, while many others did not. He plans to file further complaints against as many as a dozen other candidates, mostly Republicans, when Right to Rise and other Super PACs publish their obligatory semi-annual finance reports in mid-July.

Ryan believes that Jeb Bush is the worst offender, pushing the boundaries as far as he can take them in terms of time spent delaying his announcement and funding gained. "We've never seen this type of thing before," Ryan told DW. "He is just sitting back and grinning and thinking he's going to get away with it."

Bush's camp, for its part, has dismissed all accusations. Bush himself was confronted during an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation" earlier this month where he was asked whether he was violating the law. "No, of course not," Bush replied. "I would never do that."

Judgment call

The ultimate arbiter of the complaints is the FEC, a six-member committee appointed by the US president to oversee federal election finance. However, the FEC is itself the subject of controversy. Its own chairwoman, Ann M. Ravel, called it "worse than dysfunctional." The group is frequently deadlocked in 3-3 vote ties between its Republican and Democrat members, and discord is so prevalent several members are reportedly not even on speaking terms.

Paul Ryan is not optimistic that his challenges to the FEC will be successful. "The real question isn't whether [Bush's behavior] is legal or illegal, the question is whether anyone will do anything about it," he says. "And the answer is probably not. The process is broken. Badly broken." He expects a 3-3 vote deadlock in the FEC - an outcome that would block an investigation. Even if a penalty were imposed, he says, it would take years to enforce and would be "a monetary penalty amounting to a slap on the wrist."

Nevertheless, Ryan says he and his allies will continue to push. He is eagerly awaiting the July deadline for Super PAC finance reports. If all else fails, Ryan says his group plans to sue the FEC. "You hope for the best but expect the worst," Ryan says. He sees the outlook for the future of campaign finance control as bleak. "If Bush, in the long term, gets away with it, then his strategy will be the new norm - deny, deny, deny, deny."

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