Marjorie Margolies' fund-raising totals may have gone from minimal to illegal in the first three months of 2014, according to a complaint filed by one of her opponents in the 13th District congressional race.
State Sen. Daylin Leach has told the Federal Election Commission that Margolies repeatedly broke campaign finance laws by spending money designated for the general election on expenses for the primary.
Finance reports filed by her campaign show that Margolies ran out of primary funds on Jan. 15. However, she continued to make disbursements for her consultants, staff, travel expenses, and office supplies. By March 20, the reports show, she had spent more than $70,000 worth of general election funds.
It wasn't until March 31 - the last day of the reporting period - that Margolies received enough contributions to raise her primary coffers back into the black. She ended the quarter with about $159,000 cash on hand, and only $5,000 of it available for the primary.
In an interview Wednesday, Leach said the apparent misuse of funds is part of a pattern of financial missteps. "She's dishonest, and doesn't follow the rules," Leach said.
Ken Smukler, a senior adviser to Margolies, said her campaign "has at all times complied with all federal campaign laws. Period." He called Leach's attack an attempt "to save his desperate campaign."
Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said federal law requires candidates to keep primary and general funds separate in internal accounting and actual spending.
"The law says you cannot spend general-election money on primary-election expenses, period," Ryan said. "And they need to be able to show that they have that money on hand."
In his letter to the FEC, Leach accuses Margolies of "repeated, willful, and significant breaches of the primary/general wall."
Margolies has been viewed as the front-runner, with strong name recognition and loyal support from Bill and Hillary Clinton. She has struggled, however, to match two of her opponents, Leach and Valerie Arkoosh, in fund-raising.
State Rep. Brendan Boyle also is running, but has raised about half as much as the other three candidates.
Aren Platt, a senior adviser to Leach's campaign, said it has separate accounts for the primary and the general election, so if primary funds run out, the checks won't go through.
It's unlikely that Leach's appeal will result in FEC action, Ryan said.
"The consequences, unfortunately, are quite minimal," he said. "Because it takes the FEC a few years to investigate anything, and the commission seems reluctant to enforce the law even in the presence of fairly clear violations."
Punishments could include a fine or, in extreme instances, prosecution. But for the most part, Ryan said, the law is generally enforced through public opinion.
"Most candidates really don't want to end up in the newspaper for engaging in what seems to be pretty clear violations of campaign finance laws," he said.
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