The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Campaign finance watchdogs push Justice Dept. to investigate Jeb Bush’s PAC

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a meeting with business leaders on May 20 in Portsmouth, N.H. (AP/Jim Cole)

This post has been updated.

Watchdog groups are pushing the Justice Department to step up enforcement of current campaign finance laws by investigating whether Jeb Bush is improperly coordinating political activities with a super PAC he launched.

Two groups that track campaign finance law -- Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center -- sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch Wednesday asking that the Justice Department investigate whether Bush and his PAC "are engaged in knowing and willful violations of federal campaign finance laws." The groups are calling on Lynch to appoint an independent Special Counsel to investigate potential violations.

Bush, the former Florida governor, is preparing to formally launch a presidential bid and has established a super PAC, Right to Rise, to begin collecting unlimited funds from supporters. As a private citizen, Bush is allowed to establish and work with the super PAC on political activity. But if he launches a presidential campaign, as expected, he will no longer be allowed to coordinate with the PAC.

Ahead of a formal campaign launch, Bush travels the country repeatedly reminding voters that he's not yet a candidate -- a turn of phrase he uses to avoid specific questions or policy pronouncements. But he has been hiring veteran Republican operatives to staff either the campaign or the PAC -- and people expected to work for either organization are known to keep in close touch. Bush and his aides have also told donors that they're on the verge of raising the largest sum ever amassed by a presidential candidate at this point in a four-year campaign cycle.

"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," Kristy Campbell, a Bush spokeswoman, said in an e-mail on Wednesday.

But Fred Wertheimer, founder of Democracy 21 and a fierce critic of the current campaign finance system, said Bush has been "the most blatant" violator of campaign finance law -- but that his group and Campaign Legal Center are preparing to raise concerns about other presidential candidates in both parties. Absent enforcement of current campaign laws by the Federal Election Commission, he urged the Justice Department to act.

"Basically the country has been caught in a trap because we have a dysfunctional and paralyzed enforcement agency responsible for civil enforcement and a political community that operates on the assumption that they can do whatever they want and interpret the campaign finance laws however they want," he said in an interview.

Bush, he added, presents "a clear case" for the Justice Department to investigate.

Coordination among candidates and independent organizations has been illegal for decades, but in recent years, the boundary between campaigns and their big-money allies has blurred. That’s in part because of the surge of spending by outside groups since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts independently on political campaigns.

Groups like Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center say the increased interaction between candidates and their big-money groups has undermined contribution limits. Candidates for federal office can accept individual donations of up to $2,700 per election, while super PACs and advocacy groups can take unlimited money from individuals and corporations.

Matea Gold contributed to this report.