Candidates can get away with using campaign donations to travel to a rally, according to a new Federal Election Commission ruling — as long as they’re frugal.
That’s the result for Derrick Van Orden, the Republican congressional candidate from Wisconsin who dipped into donor funds to fund a trip to D.C., where, the Daily Beast reported last year, he appeared on Capitol Hill during the riot January 6th.
On Friday, commissioners released their unanimous July 26 decision to reject claims that Van Orden’s Jan. 6 travel expenses constituted an illegal personal use of campaign money—though they did not technically rule that it was legal, either.
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Instead, the commissioners did not even take up the merits of the case, arguing that the amount of money was too small to pursue further enforcement action. The agency’s general counsel made the same recommendation in his report, writing that even if the costs were personal, the amount in question — a few hundred dollars — was so small that it “is not worth the expenditure of further Commission resources to pursue.”
As is often the case with politically charged decisions, Democratic and Republican commissioners issued competing explanations. In this case, those statements had one key difference: Democrats condemned the spending. Republicans were silent.
Democratic commissioners Ellen Weintraub and Shana Broussard were blunt, writing that the ruling “should not be interpreted” as legalizing the use of campaign donations to disrupt the democratic process.
“While we hope that the events of January 6th will never happen again—and this really goes without saying—we want to make it clear that funding activities that seek to violently overturn the results of a legitimate election is not a permissible use of campaign funds.” their statement said.
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Their Republican counterparts also cited the small amount of money, but did not go the extra step of condemning the act on principle.
FEC regulations state that travel expenses must be “directly related to the campaign.” Van Orden wrote off about $4,000 in travel and lodging expenses for him, his wife and a staff member. He had just lost the 2020 race and had yet to declare his candidacy for 2022.
Van Orden’s campaign argued that the trip was related to prearranged “political meetings” and that the expenses would be justified because the Jan. 6 rally was “inherently political, similar to any other [p]artistic event or committee fundraiser’.
“There is so much that is wrong with this statement,” the Democratic commissioners wrote.
“Activities to disrupt the certification of a presidential election in no way resemble a party event or fundraiser,” they said in their statement. “The actions of those who breached the Capitol, attacked the Capitol Police and committed various forms of violence, trespass and assault were unlawful. And as the law makes clear, a contribution can only be used for a legitimate purpose.”
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Reached for comment, Van Orden called the complaint a “weapon of the government” and called on his Democratic opponent, Wisconsin state Sen. Brad Pfaff, to retract his claims about the allegations.
“The Democratic Party of Wisconsin filed a complaint that was summarily dismissed because of its obvious political motivations,” Van Orden falsely said. (The complaint was dismissed because of the amount of money involved; Democratic commissioners also voted to dismiss.)
“Democrats did this in an attempt to distract from their record of destroying the country over the past two years of unchecked power,” he continued. “This is the type of government weaponry that every American should be wary of, and every time my opponent repeats this demonstrably false claim, he is lying directly to you.”
Van Orden also said he expects “a full retraction” from The Daily Beast, the Wisconsin Democratic Party and Pfaff.
Last June, The Daily Beast reported that Van Orden had not only attended the rally but, according to social media posts at the time, was in a restricted area on Capitol Hill.
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