The Federal Election Commission has quietly given the green light to federal candidates who want to solicit contributions for super PACs by meeting in small groups - so small there can be just two other people in the room.
In addition, the little-noticed advisory opinion gives permission to a candidate's campaign consultant and other aides to solicit large donations for a super PAC, as long as they make clear that they are not making the request at the direction of the candidate.
The decisions - which came in response to a request from two Democratic super PACs - further erode the boundary between campaigns and their independent allies at a time when they are already engaged in unprecedented collaboration.
Federal candidates are still not permitted to explicitly ask a donor to give more than $5,000 to a super PAC. But the latest decision means that an elected official or candidate can meet privately with just one wealthy donor and one super PAC operative to discuss fund-raising for the group, said Ellen Weintraub, one of two Democrats on the six-member panel who opposed loosening the rules.
All that is required under the guidelines is a written invitation, a formal program and a disclaimer that the candidate is appearing as a "special guest" who is not soliciting large checks.
"This is actually very dangerous if you're worried about corruption, the notion that these kind of small backroom meetings can take place," Weintraub said. "The fewer people you have in the room, the fewer protections you have against something unsavory happening."
But Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman, who supported the change, said the decision on candidate interaction was in keeping with more than a decade of past FEC opinions, including a unanimous one supported by Weintraub in 2011 that allowed candidates to attend super PAC fund-raisers. He said the panel was responding to a question "about bona fide events, complete with invitations and venues and proper disclaimers, not about private tete-a-tetes and unlawful solicitations."
In the November advisory opinion, the commission also took steps that could restrain potential candidates from leaning on their well-funded outside allies while they prepare for a run.
The changes come during a campaign cycle when presidential candidates are interacting with their outside allies like never before, pushing the boundaries of rules prohibiting direct coordination. Ahead of announcing his 2016 bid, for example, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush helped raise more than $100 million for Right to Rise, a super PAC supporting him. Hillary Clinton's campaign is collaborating directly with Correct the Record, a super PAC providing the Democratic front-runner's team with opposition research.
The two Democratic groups that sought the latest changes were House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC, run by strategists with ties to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. The groups filed a request in September for guidance on a dozen super PAC practices, saying that until they were resolved, candidates and political committees would be in "a state of legal limbo." By a 4-2 vote, the FEC gave permission for a candidate to attend small gatherings of super PAC donors and allowed "agents" of a candidate to solicit large super PAC contributions.