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GOP primary winner faces 2nd federal election law complaint

March 2, 2018

Republican candidate and former Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko celebrates with her husband, Joe, after voting results show her victory in a special primary election for the Congressional District 8 seat during a campaign party at Lesko's home, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. A special primary election was being held to replace Arizona Republican Rep. Trent Franks who resigned amid accusations of sexual misconduct. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

PHOENIX (AP) — A second complaint alleging federal campaign finance law violations has been filed against the winner of this week’s special Republican primary election to replace former U.S. Rep. Trent Franks.

The complaint against former state Sen. Debbie Lesko was filed with the Federal Election Commission on Thursday by the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-D.C.-based group that supports strong enforcement of the finance laws.

It alleges that her transfer of $50,000 from her state campaign to an independent group that spent nearly all the cash backing her congressional run was illegal.

Brendan Fischer, the Campaign Legal Center’s director of federal and FEC reform director, called the transfer a violation of the bar on state campaign funds being used to support a federal election effort and “a form of political money laundering that the FEC must address.”

Fischer said it’s the first time he’s aware of any federal candidate entirely funding an independent expenditure group with their state campaign funds.

“That’s part of the reason that we filed the complaint here, because it’s well established that congressional candidates cannot use their state funds to support their federal candidacy,” he said in an interview. “And if they are able to get around that restriction by entirely funding a super PAC supporting their federal candidacy then there is a big loophole that would undermine the soft money prohibition that was adopted in the McCain-Feingold law in 2002.”

Republican candidate Phil Lovas filed a similar FEC complaint against Lesko last week. He was one of 11 candidates defeated by Lesko on Tuesday.

Lesko said earlier this week that the transfer didn’t violate the law.

“All I can say is we did everything legally,′ she said. “I have one of the best if not the best election lawyer firms on my campaign team. And I’m very thankful the voters didn’t fall for the last-minute false allegations against me.”

Lovas also filed a complaint with state election officials, but it was dismissed by Election Director Eric Spencer.

Lesko easily won Tuesday’s GOP primary and now moves on to the April 24 general election where she’s strongly favored in the Republican stronghold in the suburbs outside Phoenix. She would replace Franks, who resigned in December while facing sexual harassment allegations.

The FEC could seek fines against Lesko if it finds the transfer violates federal law. Agency spokesman Christian Hilland said federal law prohibits it from releasing information on investigations until a case is resolved. There is no timeline for action.

Lesko’s transfer of $50,000 to a super-PAC founded in January by a longtime Arizona Republican operative was disclosed in an amended FEC filing early last week.

The independent expenditure committee, Conservative Leadership for Arizona, was created Jan. 10 and received the cash from Lesko the following week. It spent nearly all of the money on polling, campaign signs and mailers, according to the FEC filing. Tim Sifert, a former state Republican Party staffer, would not discuss details of the committee other than to say it complied with all FEC regulations.

The complaint from the Campaign Legal Center contends that because the group was solely funded by Lesko, she essentially controlled it and was barred from sending it more than $5,000.

Barrett Marson, a Lesko spokesman, on Friday said the complaint is without merit and called the Campaign Legal Center “a dark-money group that routinely harasses Republicans.”

Fischer said the group goes after members of both parties and fully discloses its donors, unlike so-called “dark money” groups that keep their donor list secret. The group was founded by Trevor Potter, a Republican former FEC commissioner who was Sen. John McCain’s campaign counsel during his 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns.

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