NEW YORK - White House hopefuls raking in record amounts of money in the 2016 US presidential race are already being accused by watchdog groups of breaking campaign fundraising laws.
But the US Department of Justice is unlikely to prosecute possible violations and halt the funding free-for-all, say current and former department officials.
With deadlock in the campaign finance regulator, the Federal Election Commission, watchdog groups are calling on the Justice Department to investigate contenders such as Republican Jeb Bush, who they say is conducting a charade of "non candidacy" to skirt federal election fundraising laws.
But interviews with 11 current and former Justice Department officials indicate the department is unlikely to enforce rules before the November 2016 election, or even after. That means the election could unfold with record money - predictions are for overall campaign chests of more than $5 billion, double the cost of the 2012 election - but little regulation, they said.
The FEC, a six-person commission made up of three Democrats and three Republicans, has become paralysed because, for the most part, partisan disputes have prevented the commissioners from opening new investigations. "The fact that the FEC is neutered is not going to motivate the DOJ to go out on a limb and do a bunch of these cases," said former federal prosecutor Jonathan Biran, who started his 17-year career at the Justice Department in the criminal division's public integrity section, which traditionally prosecutes campaign finance crimes. Biran is now in private practice.
All of the people interviewed said the department would be reluctant to do anything during election season out of concern it would appear politically motivated.
They also noted that, even after the election, campaign finance cases would be extremely difficult to bring, especially since the department has been spooked by some high-profile failures in recent years.
There's also the fact that campaign finance is supposed to be policed by the FEC, not the Justice Department.
The Justice Department declined comment.
FEC Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub says the agency is "broken" and "beyond dysfunctional." Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman counters that the FEC is succeeding in achieving more compliance. (For a graphic on FEC fines, see http://reut.rs/1Jo19IN) NEW FUNDRAISING CLIMATE The new, fast-and-loose nature of campaign finance follows the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and individuals to spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for and against candidates through independent political action committees (PACs) so long as they did so without coordinating with candidates.
The ruling, former and current Justice Department officials say, has muddied the area and made it harder to ascertain what is and is not legal.
At the same time, the ruling has ushered in an era of fundraising experimentation, with the chief innovator being former Florida Governor Bush, who has headlined dozens of political fundraisers on behalf of his outside spending group, the Right to Rise Super PAC.
Campaign finance laws bar declared candidates from maintaining such a close relationship with an independent PAC. But Bush is not subject to such a bar since he has delayed his official announcement - even though he launched his undeclared campaign months ago. "We are fully complying with the law in all activities Governor Bush is engaging in on the political front, and will continue to do so," Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said in response to questions about his fundraising activities.