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Illegal Campaign Donations Spur Calls For Change

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Illegal Campaign Donations Spur Calls For Change

Election 2008: Money, Media & Influence

Illegal Campaign Donations Spur Calls For Change

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Now, the new frontier of online political fundraising. The McCain campaign has raised questions about potentially illegal money slipping into Barack Obama's campaign via the Internet. Obama's campaign points out that McCain has some of the same problems. NPR's Peter Overby explains.

PETER OVERBY: As the Obama fundraising operation has powered the campaign into financial dominance of the White House race, it's recruited some 3.1 million donors, a number never before seen in American politics. But some oddities have been popping up in those donor lists. It all has to do with Internet contributions. Several people tracing back to the same credit card, donors like Es Ech and Doodad Pro, the first one to run earthed over the summer online by conservative blogger, Pamela Geller. Now, other conservative activists say, they're making online contributions to Obama using fake names such as Osama bin Laden. And as the race winds down, John McCain's campaign has picked up on the theme. Campaign manager Rick Davis held a press call last week just to discuss Obama's fundraising.

Mr. RICK DAVIS (Campaign Manager, Sen. JOHN MCCAIN): He talked about being the most transparent campaign seen to date, in fact has challenged other people on their transparency.

OVERBY: Davis said Obama has to weed out who knows how many illegal donors and how much illegal money.

Mr. DAVIS: If there are problems, they should be disgorged. And look, they should be cleaned up.

OVERBY: The Obama campaign says it's constantly scrutinizing the donor lists and improving the screening devices. But something stands in the way of a quick cleanup -the sheer volume of Obama's fundraising. Last month alone, he averaged more than $5 million per day, but the average donation was less than $100. Paul Houghtaling is a Democratic consultant on campaign finance and compliance. He says there's no perfect screener for bogus online contributions.

Mr. PAUL HOUGHTALING (Democratic Consultant): Although you could minimize them with certain tools that are available to the so-called merchant, you're not going to be able to eliminate all of them.

OVERBY: In fact, Houghtaling has developed a system himself for cross-checking Internet political contributions. Some other Democratic organizations are using it, although not the Obama campaign. But he says the ultimate problem is individual motivation, not technology.

Mr. HOUGHTALING: For instance, there's nothing you can do to prevent someone from going out and collecting $100 from all of his buddies and then writing a check for a thousand bucks. In a similar fashion, there's nothing you can do to keep someone from collecting $100 from 10 friends and then making a credit card contribution.

OVERBY: Either way, it's against the law. Still, there's no great legal incentive for the Obama campaign to ramp up its vetting process now, not when there's so much else to do. Campaign finance lawyer Larry Norton should know; he's a former chief counsel to the Federal Election Commission.

Mr. LARRY NORTON (Campaign Finance Lawyer): Look, they can deal with the FEC after he's elected president. The system is very deliberately set up so that all this is worked out after the elections are over.

OVERBY: It turns out the McCain campaign has some similar problems. One online donor listed his name as Jesus II. Truth to tell, it doesn't appear that illegal donors are running rampant through either campaign. But it's also true that there's no standard for an acceptable problem rate in the new world of Internet fundraising, not in the campaign finance laws or the regulations or the practice. Again, Larry Norton.

Mr. NORTON: You've got an entire system that really is designed to deal with the 1976 election.

OVERBY: Later this year, McCain's campaign will get audited by the Federal Election Commission. It's part of the package for candidates who accept public financing. But Obama didn't get into the public finance system. So it's up to the FEC, with its three Republicans and three Democrats, to decide whether it will audit the Obama campaign's books. Peter Overby, NPR News Washington.

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