Campaigns Eye More Vetting for 'Bundlers'

Presidential campaigns typically vet campaign donors, but what exactly do they look for? And what would it take to do criminal checks on major contributors? Attorney Jan Baran, a specialist in election law and ethics, offers his insights.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

So how would a campaign go about checking the backgrounds of donors and bundlers? And what would the threshold be? Would a drunk-driving conviction disqualify someone? How about tax evasion?

Jan Baran is a senior partner with Wiley Rein. That's a law firm here in Washington, D.C. He specializes in election law and ethics. And he was also general counsel for George Bush Sr.'s presidential campaign in 1988. He joins us in the studio.

So glad you're with us.

Mr. JAN BARAN (Senior Partner, Wiley Rein & Fielding): Nice to be here, Michele.

NORRIS: So were you surprised that this kind of thing would happen in a campaign - not necessarily to the Clinton campaign but in general?

Mr. BARAN: I am a little surprised just because of the scale. Having one individual raise fifty or a hundred contributions from people that he or she may know for a campaign is quite a feat. But here, we have somebody who apparently raised contributions from hundreds of people, and the total amount was a pretty impressive $850,000. And we're still 14 months away from the elections, so he apparently did this in a relatively short period of time.

NORRIS: So it raises questions about what kinds of filters are in place. Traditionally, what do campaigns do to vet their donors?

Mr. BARAN: Well, the most important thing that campaigns do is they have their donors certify the legality of their contribution. They do that by either publishing certain legally required disclaimers, cards that contributors fill out and return to the campaign. Or, in this age where more and more contributions might be coming over the Internet, they will have certain information that a contributor would verify by clicking a confirmation button on a Web site that the campaign would have. And the type of information that these campaigns want confirmed is, well, that this is the contributor's money, that it doesn't come from a corporation, doesn't come from a union, that also the donor is an American citizen or somebody who, otherwise, is lawfully permitted to contribute.

NORRIS: Now, we just hear in Peter's piece that the Clinton campaign will now run background checks on its bundlers. Is that at all surprising? And what would a campaign have to do to actually run a criminal background check?

Mr. BARAN: Oh, that's a very excellent question. Of course, the very best source of information is the information at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI retains a National Crime Information Center, NCIC. But that's not available to the public. That's only available to law enforcement agencies. You're ultimately left with a potential resource, which is search firms, companies that represent that they will do a search and come up with information if there is any information.

NORRIS: So let's say that the campaign does run a background check and they discovered that the bundler's been arrested for, say, a minor crime. Where's the line?

Mr. BARAN: Well, that's going to be a decision made by the campaigns. They have to decide, you know, what their standards are for being associated with certain supporters. Is a speeding ticket disqualifying? Is a misdemeanor plea of some sort, is it going to require a felony? And of course, there's a separate issue of, well, if somebody is accused of a crime, do you wait until they're proven guilty or do you immediately throw the person under the bus, as they say?

NORRIS: Will the Hsu case have a bracing effect on all the campaigns? Do you suspect that other campaigns might start doing background checks, perhaps even criminal background checks?

Mr. BARAN: I suspect that the Clinton campaign is setting a standard here that other campaigns are likely to review and probably follow. They may have different standards. It's just like the process of campaigns currently on their own, identifying who their bundlers are. Some campaigns do that. Other campaigns don't do it.

NORRIS: Mm-hmm. And there's the question about what you do with the money while you're doing the background check. Do you cash the check and give it back or do you put it in escrow while you do the background check?

Mr. BARAN: Well, one of the principles of campaign fundraising is that you always cash the check.

NORRIS: Ah, okay. Jan Baran, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

Mr. BARAN: My pleasure.

NORRIS: Jan Baran is a senior partner at Wiley Rein. That's a law firm in Washington, D.C.

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