As Campaigns Chafe at Limits, Donors Might Be in Diapers

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Elrick Williams's toddler niece Carlyn may be one of the youngest contributors to this year's presidential campaign. The 2-year-old gave $2,300 to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

So did her sister and brother, Imara, 13, and Ishmael, 9, and her cousins Chan and Alexis, both 13. Altogether, according to newly released campaign finance reports, the extended family of Williams, a wealthy Chicago financier, handed over nearly a dozen checks in March for the maximum allowed under federal law to Obama.

Such campaign donations from young children would almost certainly run afoul of campaign finance regulations, several campaign lawyers said. But as bundlers seek to raise higher and higher sums for presidential contenders this year, the number who are turning to checks from underage givers appears to be on the rise.

"It's not difficult for a banker or a trial lawyer or a hedge fund manager to come up with $2,300, and they're often left wanting to do more," said Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. "That's when they look across the dinner table at their children and see an opportunity."

Asked about the Williams family giving, Obama spokesman Bill Burton said, "As a policy, we don't take donations from anyone under the age of 15." After being asked by The Post about the matter, he said the children's donations will be returned.

Although campaign finance laws set a limit of $2,300 per donor per campaign, they do not explicitly bar donors based on age. And young donors abound in the fundraising reports filed by presidential contenders this year.

A supporter of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R), Susan Henken of Dover, Mass., wrote her own $2,300 check, and her 13-year-old son, Samuel, and 15-year-old daughter, Julia, each wrote $2,300 checks, for example. Samuel used money from his bar mitzvah and money he earned "dog sitting," and Julia used babysitting money to make the contributions, their mother said. "My children like to donate to a lot of causes. That's just how it is in my house," Henken said.

Just how much campaign cash is coming from children is uncertain -- the FEC does not require donors to provide their age. But the amount written by those identifying themselves as students on contribution forms has risen dramatically this year, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. During the first six months of the 2000 presidential campaign, students gave $338,464. In 2004, that rose to $538,936.

This year, the amount has nearly quadrupled, to $1,967,111.

"What's driving it is a desire by maxed-out donors to max out on their maxing out," said Fred Wertheimer, president of campaign finance reform organization Democracy 21, who sought, unsuccessfully, to outlaw child donations five years ago. "More often than not, you're dealing with people who are simply trying to circumvent the limits of what they can give."

Congress tried to outlaw political contributions from those under age 18 as part of the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002, but the Supreme Court struck down that provision as an infringement on the constitutional rights of minors. With that ruling in mind, the Federal Election Commission wrote new regulations two years ago that tried to balance what it considered a legitimate desire among some children to make political contributions against the possibility that parents would seek to pad their donations by funneling money through children.

The regulations established a three-step test to determine whether a contribution is acceptable: It must be made with the child's money, the parent cannot reimburse the child for making the donation and the contribution has to be knowing and voluntary.

That last part of the test is the one that would seem to rule out a 2-year-old, said Michael E. Toner, a former FEC chairman who helped draft the rules. "If they are 16 or 17, they're clearly old enough to know what they're doing, as compared to someone who is, say, 10 years old. . . . I don't know any 2-year-old who is capable of making that kind of decision."

Paula Madison, a Los Angeles entertainment executive who is one of Elrick Williams's sisters (he referred calls to her), said Williams had not been regularly involved in political fundraising but got excited about the notion of seeing an African American elected president. He talked to every member of the family about his desire to help Obama. One relative served as a trustee for a fund set up for Williams's children, nieces and nephews, Madison said.

They believed that because a trustee was legally responsible for handling the children's money, that trustee could make the donations on their behalf. "This wasn't about routing money through the children," Madison said. "It wasn't like, 'We'll do this under someone else's name.' "

Lawrence Noble, a former FEC general counsel, said the involvement of a trustee can help prove that the child used his or her own money -- which is important -- but does not, on its own, make the contribution legal.

This is the second time in two months that the Obama campaign has returned contributions from young children. The first involved donations from Maryland developer Aris Mardirossian's two children, Matthew, 8, and Karis, 7; each contributed $2,300 to Obama's primary campaign and $2,300 more for a possible general-election contest.

Although the campaign immediately returned the money, Mardirossian, who along with his wife also gave maximum contributions to Obama, said he saw no need for the campaign to do so.

"My children are very engaged in politics, Mardirossian said. "The whole family is engaged. Every Sunday we get together, all the cousins, everybody comes and talks about politics. The children sit down and listen to the debates and everything."

Helen Maloof Aranda offered a terse explanation when asked how her two children, ages 10 and 16, came to donate the maximum allowed to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's Democratic presidential bid -- some of the more than $32,000 in contributions that Maloof family members gave Richardson.

"We just support him," Aranda said when reached at the family's Santa Fe beer distributorship.

Research editor Alice Crites and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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