“From day one, we’ve refused to take money from any corporate PACs or lobbyists,” former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted in July. “I work for you—not any industry.”
But as the one-two punch of a tightening race for the Democratic nomination and President Donald Trump’s attacks against his family puts Biden’s campaign on the ropes, the former vice president has obliquely tagged in the assistance of an outside super PAC—one that has no apparent intention of holding itself to the same standards as Biden’s campaign.
“Unite the County,” the recently formed super PAC that has aligned itself with Biden’s campaign, was organized by Democratic political consultant and longtime Biden friend Larry Rasky, head of lobbying and consulting group Rasky Partners. The firm’s clients have included pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies, law firms, defense contractors, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Rasky is himself a registered lobbyist for the nation of Azerbaijan, receiving $15,000 per month for “strategic communications counsel and services,” as well as an additional 10 percent for administrative fees and expense charges.
Although campaigns are forbidden by the Federal Election Commission from coordinating directly with super PACs—and the Biden campaign has made no public statements supporting the PAC’s efforts since its creation—the “Unite the Country” website makes its allegiance to Biden explicitly clear. Using near-identical language to Biden’s stump speeches, the PAC’s stated mission is to elect Biden, “a leader who will rebuild the middle class, stop the corruption and abuse of power, and fight for equality.”
“It’s clear from his actions that Donald Trump is afraid to run against Joe Biden,” the PAC’s site adds. “He and his allies are already spending millions of dollars to attack Joe. Our mission is to support Joe Biden, take the fight to Donald Trump and elect a president who will stand up for all of us.”
The Biden campaign declined to comment on “Unite the Country” or its efforts, citing FEC rules against coordination. But several attorneys specializing in campaign finance and ethics told The Daily Beast that Biden’s camp would be legally in the clear if it were to publicly suggest that the PAC follow the former veep’s lead in swearing off donations from lobbyists.
“I don’t see a potential campaign finance problem with this request, particularly if it were made publicly through media channels,” said Michael E. Toner, who served as chair of the FEC under President George W. Bush and currently chairs the election law and government ethics practice at Wiley Rein LLP. “Making clear that you would prefer that a Super PAC not accept certain kinds of contributions is not paid advertising.”
“There is always wiggle room,” said Steven Schlesinger, managing partner of Jaspan Schlesinger LLP, who has served as campaign counsel on numerous political campaigns. “Coordination is difficult to establish.”
Coordination, another campaign finance attorney told The Daily Beast, largely involves communication or direction behind closed doors.
“Carly Fiorina’s PAC is a good example,” the attorney said. “Her actual campaign had no infrastructure—it was tiny. So the campaign would announce that she was speaking somewhere, and ‘Carly For America’ would show up with a PA system, T-shirts, sign-up sheets, fliers, and they would hold the rally. She would just show up and speak.”
“If it’s in public, you can take advantage of it—it’s not coordination.”
From a public relations standpoint, however, another attorney told The Daily Beast that he understood why Biden’s campaign would prefer not to say anything.
“If a candidate were to get up there and say, ‘this is inappropriate,’ I couldn’t imagine the good-government groups filing a complaint with the FEC saying that that was coordinating with the super PAC,” the attorney said. “But to say them, ‘well, we’re fine with the super PAC but the super PAC really shouldn’t accept money from lobbyists,’ I can understand why the campaign would want to stay away from that kind of information.”
Rasky did not return a request for comment about following Biden’s lead in swearing off donations from lobbyists, but the actions of the PAC’s pro-Biden predecessor, “American Possibilities,” also organized by Rasky, are a likely indicator of the group’s future fundraising policies. “American Possibilities” accepted more than $113,000 in donations from lobbyists for Apple, Boeing, Facebook, and the NFL, as well as unregistered influence peddlers working on behalf of a host of industries, ranging from pharmaceuticals to finance.
Biden, meanwhile, has decried the role that PACs and high-dollar donors play in politics, and has vowed to push for a constitutional amendment for public campaign financing if elected.
The word “lobbyist” has become a dirty word among the top tier of Democratic presidential hopefuls, to the point that it’s quicker to list candidates who have welcomed donations from federally registered lobbyists than those who have refused (former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, both of whom have since dropped out of the race). Other campaigns have gone even further, swearing off donations from entire industries, from insurance to fossil fuels, whose actions and influence have become Democratic bugbears.
The porous nature of the Lobbying Disclosure Act has allowed campaigns to sidestep some of these pledges—most have sworn to reject donations only from registered lobbyists, allowing unregistered employees at lobbying firms and other informal machers to donate some $200,000 to Biden’s campaign, according to the Associated Press.
Loopholes aside, however, campaigns have largely complied with pledges. In September, Biden’s campaign returned nearly $12,000 in donations from federally registered lobbyists after the donations had been initially accepted.