Complaint: DePasquale violated campaign finance law
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale violated federal campaign finance law by using funds from his state-level campaign to prop up his congressional bid, a complaint filed by his Democratic opponent alleged.
And the complaint seems to have merit, said one campaign finance expert.
Tom Brier, a Hershey-based author and attorney who is slated to face off with DePasquale in the state's 10th Congressional District primary race in June, filed the complaint regarding the use of $113,050 in funds with the Federal Election Commission on Friday.
The auditor general used those funds to "test the waters" for his congressional bid to oust U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Carroll Township, according to the complaint drafted by Brier's attorney, Scott Thomas, former chairman of the FEC.
The FEC explicitly prohibits federal candidates from accepting funds or assets transferred from non-federal committees.
“I don’t see any plausible alternative,” Brier said. “It directly coincided with reports he would be running for Congress. It’s a huge amount of money, and he’s the state’s fiscal watch dog. If he’s flouting the rules, what does that mean for us?"
The complaint includes 13 records between March and May of 2019 detailing expenditures from DePasquale's state campaign committee to a variety of marketing companies involved in politics.
Descriptions of the expenditures describe a range of services, including consulting, video and media production and website-related work.
That includes $33,000 paid to Virginia-based Jackson Media group for consulting and video production, a group whose founder, Bud Jackson, briefly handled press relations and worked as a consultant in the early stages of DePasquale's campaign.
DePasquale didn't officially file with the FEC to run for Congress until July, two months after the most recent payments.
But they also came as media began to speculate he would run for the seat, and that, among other factors, prompted Brier's allegation that DePasquale "used prohibited source monies to further his testing phase and/or his candidacy phase."
DePasquale's campaign dismissed the accusations, asserting the payments came before he announced his candidacy and that they had nothing to do with his congressional campaign.
Campaign manager Rachele Fortier added that any "relevant materials" from the state campaign were legally purchased, such as email lists and research by DePasquale's state-level campaign.
Fortier would not provide any further detail about the payments included in the complaint.
"This is clearly a baseless attack from a frustrated politician who is struggling to gain traction in this primary, the details of which the Brier campaign sent to the press without even bothering to send us directly," Fortier said.
It is also "incredibly disappointing" that Brier made the accusations during the coronavirus pandemic, she said.
However, Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan government accountability organization, said Brier's complaint "looks legitimate."
Fischer noted that the actions of DePasquale prior to his campaign announcement, which included dropping money on Facebook ads touting his record as auditor general, "seemed innocuous enough."
But given the context, such as the fact DePasquale couldn't run for auditor general again due to term limits, the actions "certainly raise questions."
“It’s almost certainly impermissible to use state funds to explore a run for federal office," Fischer said. “There’s a lot of evidence that this was aimed at laying the groundwork for a federal candidacy."
Both DePasquale and Brier are looking to oust four-term Rep. U.S. Scott Perry, R-Carroll Township.
DePasquale has been viewed by political analysts as Democrats' best chance to oust Perry, with Politico and the Cook Political report rating the race as a toss-up.
The Democrat has held a steady fundraising advantage over his primary opponent, raising more than $1 million since his campaign began compared to Brier's $468,000.
Brier dismissed allegations that his complaint is in any way related to petty politics like his opponent's campaign contended, though, saying it's about transparency and accountability above all else.
"The fact they are responding in a political way, instead of a legal or factual way, shows us what we need to know," Brier said.
The complaint asks the FEC — which currently lacks a quorum and cannot vote until it's restored — to investigate the payments and take multiple actions if it finds Brier's accusations to be true.
Those include mandating DePasquale's campaign repay the funds to his state campaign and "secure an agreement" with the Democrat and his committees not to repeat any similar offenses going forward.
— Logan Hullinger can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.