Alan Cohn, the Democrat running for Florida’s 15th Congressional District, could be in hot water after an election complaint shows he may have illegally accepted a campaign contribution far in excess of allowable limits.
Cohn, who is running against Republican Scott Franklin to replace incumbent Ross Spano, accepted more than $235,000 from the political committee House Victory Project 2020 on Sept. 30.
Political committees often can dump tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaigns, but to do so they have to be authorized committees for the campaigns. House Victory Project 2020 was not, at the time of the six-figure transfer, an authorized committee for Cohn for Congress.
The complaint references the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA) and rules under the Federal Election Commission.
“Under FECA and Commission regulations, a campaign committee can only accept a transfer of funds from an authorized campaign account,” the complaint reads.
“There are multiple public policy reason(s) why such listing of authorized campaign accounts is required … including to prevent fraudulent solicitations to unauthorized committees, and also for public and regulatory oversight disclosure of where campaign accounts are housed and affiliated,” the complaint continues.
Because House Victory Project 2020 was not an authorized committee for Cohn for Congress at the time of the transfer, it instead may constitute a contribution from the committee to Cohn’s campaign. As such, it would violate contribution limits by more than $200,000.
The complaint asks the FEC to order the transfer an “illegal excessive contribution,” order the transfer “disgorged,” which would refund the payment, and to fine Cohn’s campaign “appropriately.”
“This is a right-wing attack from a disgruntled failed congressional candidate and ultimately amounts to a minor clerical error,” said Kevin Lata, campaign manager for Alan Cohn. “This information was publicly available on the FEC’s website and House Victory Project reported on September 15 that our campaign was a fundraising participant. Clearly, Scott Franklin and his allies are desperate to distract from his plans to end Social Security as we know it, and increase taxes on the middle class.”
If forced to return the more than $200,000 in excess of campaign contribution limits, Cohn’s campaign would take a huge hit. As of Sept. 30, the most recent date for which campaign finance reports have been filed with the FEC, Cohn had just over $412,000 on hand. Minus the $200,000 and Cohn would have less than Franklin’s nearly $283,000 still on hand as of the end of September. That money could make or break Cohn’s campaign in a race where he’s trailing in the polls.
Voters in CD 15, which covers parts of Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties, have been here before.
Spano is still under federal investigation over his own illegal campaign contributions from 2018 when he first won election. Spano took nearly $200,000 in loans from two personal friends and then used those loans to fund his campaign. Under FEC rules, only a candidate can loan a campaign money. That means the personal loans from friends constituted an illegal contribution, a fact Spano himself later acknowledged and blamed on bad financial advice from a consultant.
The difference between Spano and Cohn’s mistake is crucial — voters didn’t know of Spano’s mishap until after he was already elected. Cohn’s mistake is becoming public less than two weeks before the Nov. 3 General Election.
What’s perhaps worse is Cohn’s campaign appears to have known they messed up. The campaign added House Victory Project 2020 as an authorized committee on Oct. 4, less than a week after the initial transfer.
The complaint was notably filed by Republican Neil Combee. Combee ran unsuccessfully against Spano in the 2018 primary, an election he would later learn he lost after his opponent padded his war chest with out-of-bounds contributions.
“For candidates who are willing to skirt the law, it not only disadvantages their opponent but it wrongs the people who abide by the law while supporting their candidate of choice,” Combee told Florida Politics. “I didn’t like it when it happened to me in 2018 and I don’t like it in 2020. Federal Election law is not esoteric. Some people just choose to do what they think they have to do to win and hope they don’t get caught, or if they do, only get a sternly worded letter and a small fine from the FEC.”
CD 15 voters have already been plagued for two years by a Representative in Congress who was able to get little done as he battled a Department of Justice investigation. Now they’re facing an election where they could be left with a new Representative who could face the very same challenges.
At the very least, it’s something for voters to consider.
Here’s a copy of the complaint.