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Hillary Clinton campaign fundraisers: Cash bar only?

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)
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Just another sign of the Clinton campaign’s attempts at frugality? Or a campaign finance slippery slope?

The Clinton camp’s lawyer, Marc Elias, sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission earlier this month seeking some legal guidance. (Sensitive about any potential rule skirting these days?)

He wondered whether donors purchasing valet service or their own food at a Clinton campaign event would need to be counted as “in-kind contributions.”

This isn’t Clinton’s first rodeo (or Elias’s), so you’d think these issues would have come up before. Except in the past, candidates — especially the major, well-financed ones — would traditionally provide food or drinks to guests paying as much as $2,700 to attend an event.

But the Clinton camp no longer wants to spend its hard-earned dollars feeding donors or parking their Mercedes — her deep-pocketed supporters can surely afford those luxuries on their own. This way the campaign keeps the full cost of the event ticket to use for other expenses. It’s perfectly in line with the Clinton team’s promise to be more frugal this go-around with campaign dollars.

[How cheap is Hillary Clinton’s campaign? This cheap.]

Brett Kappel, a D.C-based campaign finance lawyer, sees nothing nefarious here. Just a campaign being overly careful.

“Because of super PACs, there’s a lot of pressure to raise as much hard money as possible,” he said. So campaigns are saying “we need your entire $5,000 contribution, it’s a cost-saving measure.”

(Clinton raised $46.7 million in hard money in under three months, so she’s doing okay.)

But Paul Ryan, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center, sees potential for abuse if campaigns find other ways to offload expenses to donors.

“I may be paranoid, but the campaign is clearly trying to minimize fundraising costs by offloading food and valet to contributors,” he said. “Then I’m wondering whether a corporation could pay for that food without making an in-kind contribution. Could they encourage employees to attend an event and say, ‘we’ll pay (for your meal)’ ?”

He went further, pondering whether a restaurant could coincidentally be having a Tony Bennett concert at their establishment the same night as a political event. It would attract donors, but should the restaurant featuring the celebrity count as an in-kind contribution to the campaign?

Clinton’s lawyer, in his letter to the FEC on Aug. 7, said the presidential campaign “plans to organize and host numerous events throughout the election cycle in restaurants, hotels, or similar event spaces,” and when they’re not making food or drinks available individuals might want to personally purchase them.

Elias continued, reasoning that if an event attendee bought a hot dog at a cart outside a Clinton campaign, that wouldn’t count toward an in-kind contribution, so neither should a purchase inside a restaurant where the event is being held.

The FEC will have to rule on the Clinton campaign request. If the six commissioners ruled against it, then the amount donors paid for their own food or valet service at a fundraiser would count against the $2,700 max contribution an individual can give a candidate.

Hey Clinton fans, just pack a snack before you go.