Money that Jill Stein raised to recount votes in 2016 swing states is being used by her campaign to pay for legal bills stemming from the investigation of Russian interference in the last presidential election.
In June, The Daily Beast reported that the the U.S. Green Party candidate’s campaign, which raised $7.3 million for recounts in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, had in 2017 stopped disclosing its monthly spending with the Federal Election Commission. Later that month, the Jill Stein for President committee filed a slew of reports that reveal spending on lawyers who are not trying to get inside any voting machines.
At the end of May 2018, according to the most recent FEC filing, the Stein campaign paid the “Partnership for Civil Justice” $66,441.60; that is on top of a $31,536 payment made in January, and more than the Stein campaign had in cash on hand by November 2016.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund is a nonprofit law firm whose mission is to “defend and advance fundamental civil, constitutional and human rights,” per a 2016 IRS filing. On its website, the group notes that it is representing Stein in her dealings before the the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
In May 2018, the Stein campaign also paid $9,325 in attorney fees to Miller & Chevalier. In August 2017, Politico described it as “a boutique firm in Washington” that had taken on the case of Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman. Manafort, accused of by special counsel Robert Mueller of money laundering, is currently in jail.
Stein has not been accused of any wrongdoing with respect to the various Russia investigations, but she has drawn attention from investigators for, among other things, her attendance at a December 2015 party in Moscow celebrating the 10th anniversary of state broadcaster RT. There she dined with Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser whom Mueller indicted for making false statements.
In December 2017, Senate investigators requested documents from the Stein campaign as part of its own look into Russian government interference in the last presidential election. Stein has largely complied.
In an April 26 letter, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, cofounder of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, told Senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner that, “As its records reflect, the Campaign paid for Dr. Stein’s trip to Russia.” The letter also notes Stein’s willingness to comply with its requests for communication with Russian state media organizations and Russian government officials. Objections are raised, however, to what are deemed unconstitutionally vague requests for internal policy discussions and contacts with any “Russian persons,” regardless of affiliation.
While retaining legal counsel is Stein’s right, it is also not a recount, the justness of which may be left for those gave to that cause to decide.
In a November 28 press release, the Stein campaign assured such donors that “recount funds are being held in a dedicated account, separate from Stein’s Presidential campaign treasury, and will be used to pay for all costs associated with the recounts.”
Though all recounts were terminated by the end of 2016, the Stein campaign continued litigating in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where it seeks access to the source code used by the states’ proprietary voting machines. In January 2017, the campaign spent $500,000 on a retainer for the firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP. It had more than $958,000 in cash on hand by the end of that month.
What to do with the money left over, after all recounts efforts were completed, is a question that 150,000 contributors were promised a vote on.
“We will send out a poll to each recount donor, [asking] them to participate in a Ranked Choice Voting process, to choose the recipients of surplus funds,” the Stein campaign website states, noting the average donor gave just under $50. By the end of May 2018, after more than $120,000 in spending, $640,387 in cash on hand remained
The Stein campaign did not respond to inquiries. Previously, communications director Dave Schwab told The Daily Beast the vote was still on, stating that “we will poll donors on what to do with surplus funds once recount-related litigation is over and we are able to establish a surplus.”
Subsequent financial reports show not all those funds are going toward litigation of any kind, but then campaign promises are always hard to enforce.
A 2006 FEC guidance states that candidates who raise money for recounts may use that money for “post-election litigation and administrative-proceeding expenses concerning the casting and counting of ballots during the Federal election, fees for the payment of staff assisting the recount or election contest efforts, and administrative and overhead expenses in connection with recounts and election contests.”
“The real prohibition,” according to Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy at the center-left nonprofit Common Cause, “is on ‘personal use,’ which is when candidates or campaigns use money to fulfill obligations irrespective of the campaign.” Outside of that—an itemized deduction of a beach house, for example—the Stein campaign, like all campaigns, has the practical freedom to use donor cash liberally.
Adav Noti, the FEC’s associate general counsel for policy from 2013 to 2017, echoed that sentiment.
“The short answer is that I believe Stein’s spending is likely compliant with FEC rules,” Noti, now senior director for trial litigation at the Campaign Legal Center, wrote in an email. “The somewhat longer answer is that for many years the FEC has allowed candidates and political parties to get away with pretty much anything in the context of recount accounts, so the restrictions on those accounts, to the extent there can even be said to be restrictions, are a complete mess.”
Judith Ingram, a press officer with the FEC, would not directly comment on the Stein campaign’s filing but noted that, once in its coffers, campaigns can spend their money on just about anything campaign-related. The commission, she said, “decides on a case-by-case basis whether legal expenses are considered ‘personal use’ and thus are expenses that a candidate may not pay for using campaign monds.”
The “wisest course of action,” she said, is for candidates “to ask for an advisory opinion.”
The Stein campaign could even keep on its campaign staff, and pay them whatever it likes, until the last recount dollar is gone. That appears to be what it is doing. Campaign manager David Cobb, according to the latest FEC filing, earned $11,280 in May 2018. That’s up from $7,520 a month before, and three times what he was making during the 2016 campaign.
Cobb’s online biographies do not mention continued work for the Stein campaign. His LinkedIn page, for example, identifies him as a fellow at the Liberty Tree Foundation, stating his work for the campaign ended in 2016. His biography for Left Forum, held this coming November, says he “managed the Stein/Baraka 2016 campaign, and serves as the Coordinator of the [Green Party California] Candidates & Campaigns Working Group.”
Cobb did not respond to requests for comment, but after earlier requests, and the publication of a story, he said, “I am serving in several roles.” In particular, “I oversee the campaign audit, a routine FEC cross check on campaigns that have qualified for clean money public matching funds,” he wrote. “I also coordinate with the attorneys for much fo the ongoing legal work being done on behalf of the recount.”
Matthew Kozlowski, Stein’s “Director of Compliance,” was also paid $10,740 in May 2018. That’s up from $7,160 in April. During the 2016 campaign, Kozlowski served as Stein’s “Director of Information,” earning $3,840 in September of that year.
The Stein campaign’s 2016 “Director of Operations,” Kendall Ferguson, earned $5,760 in May 2018 as a “Finance Associate.” Ferguson made just under $3,100 in August 2016.
Carl Romanelli, a former Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, also made $3,000 in May 2018 for “Recount Organizing Services.”
Dave Schwab, Communications Director for the Stein campaign responded Friday:
Recount money was used to provide legal counsel for the Senate investigation of alleged Russian collusion that the recount and our campaign were accused of. It was outrageous that the Senate Intelligence Committee accused the recount of being a tool of Russian interference, when the recount was exactly the thing that could have detected any such election interference, had it not been obstructed. Legal counsel enabled us to defend the recount from the baseless accusations behind the Russia investigation, which allowed us to leverage the intense media interest in the Russia investigation to amplify the critical message that election integrity is our best defense against election interference.
Updated 7/13, 4pm to add comment from the Stein campaign.