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Watchdog filing: Clinton skirts candidacy

A nonprofit asked the FEC to investigate actions that seem to indicate she is running while not declaring.

WASHINGTON - In the latest barb of a recent conservative onslaught aimed at former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a new watchdog group said Friday it has asked the Federal Election Commission to determine whether she has violated campaign laws by failing to formally declare her presidential candidacy.

The complaint cited media reports that Clinton has already picked her staff and selected pollsters and that her team is feeding talking points to a new political group to try to defend her amid a controversy over her use, while secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, of a private e-mail account to conduct official business.

At the same time, the Washington-based Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust wrote, Clinton has "continued to give paid speeches, possibly paid by corporations and other organizations in excess of contribution limits to fund her campaign related activities."

"Both the duration and substance of Hillary Clinton's activities indicate that she is in fact a candidate and cannot avoid the disclosure and transparency required by law," said the complaint, marking at least the fourth action against her in recent weeks by a conservative-leaning watchdog group.

It was signed by its executive director, Matthew Whitaker. He is a former U.S. attorney in Iowa who ran unsuccessfully for the state's Republican senatorial nomination in 2013 and 2014.

Nick Merrill, a spokesman for the former secretary of state, had a tart reply: "While we appreciate the legal advice from the GOP, their claims are patently false."

The complaint was not unlike those filed days earlier by two nonprofit watchdog groups against four other likely candidates - three Republicans and a Democrat - alleging they have been flying across the country to presidential primary states and raising a torrent of cash without acknowledging that they're testing the waters.

Those candidates are former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and former Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland.

The FEC recently dismissed a similar complaint against Clinton by a conservative political action committee known as the Stop Hillary PAC.

Federal election laws require politicians to register a campaign committee once they announce they are running for an office or if they raise or spend at least $5,000 toward that end. Candidates also can opt to form exploratory committees, which delay the registration requirement.

One complication stemming from a 2010 Supreme Court ruling striking down post-Watergate limits on campaign fund-raising is that would-be candidates are now allowed to appear at fund-raisers for outside groups, which can now raise unlimited sums, as long as they don't directly solicit donations.

There also were reports circulating Friday that Clinton's team had signed a lease for a campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., but even that action would not trigger a deadline to declare her formal candidacy for another 15 days.