It’s true: In March 2022, the FEC fined the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s presidential election campaign for incorrectly declaring payments to an oppo research firm involved with the Steele dossier. As a Democratic voter in 2016, I must say that news of the fine means…absolutely nothing to me. The stakes in the 2016 election were a lot higher than whether the FEC agreed with every point of the Clinton campaign’s interpretation of campaign finance law.
This isn’t to say that following accounting rules isn’t important. It is! But I don’t expect Clinton personally directed someone to misfile the paperwork, and in any case the multiple reasons I preferred her as a candidate had nothing to do with the strategy of her campaign accountant.
I do sympathize with the accountant, though. I assume there was some strategic reason for checking off whatever box got them in trouble, just like there’s a strategic reason that I claimed the home office deduction on my taxes this year – it lowers my tax bill. TurboTax tells me that estimating the size of my office and house is fine, so I made a good-faith effort, but if an IRS inspector shows up with a tape measure, some of the deduction might be disallowed and I’d have to pay back taxes. (And that’s just one of the places where I had to take my best guess about interpreting how to apply tax law in a situation that’s slightly complicated but not all that uncommon. Even TurboTax threw up its hands on how to deal with adult children who are no longer dependents but still part of an ACA health plan associated with the business of a self-employed taxpayer.)
Tax law and election finances are all very interesting, of course, but of all the consequences of the 2016 election, a $113,000 fine (in total) for a million-dollar payment doesn’t rank in the top thousand. If I’m disappointed in anything, it’s that the Steele dossier didn’t result in Trump being hounded out of office. Compared to that, how the check got cut for the legwork is completely uninteresting.
(No crowing, Trump voters. There was an FEC fine for the Trump campaign that we can substitute just as easily.)
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I’d like to propose as a basic rule of thumb that if you wouldn’t be outraged by Your Candidate or Your Party doing something, you shouldn’t let outrage overtake you when the Church does something similar. If the DNC had $50 billion, I’d be ecstatic. If their investment advisor suggested an aggressive strategy to avoid filing paperwork that didn’t ultimately work out, resulting in a $5 million fine, well, the DNC should have a talk with its accountant. I look to the DNC and Democratic politicians for many things, but not for a campaign finance strategy that never results in FEC action. People get too ambitious and make mistakes. If that happens, I’m not going to start voting for Trump, cheering for Republican candidates, or donating to the RNC.
If you’ve been following the story of the Church’s SEC settlement with intense interest, I have some bad news for you: The people at church have already moved on. A business professor brought up the SEC fine in Sunday School a couple weeks ago; he thought the online reactions were exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness. I know that outrage is addictive and scandal is delicious, but there’s a high bar for religious scandal these days, and filing delayed paperwork isn’t going to cut it. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible for scandal to ever touch Church leaders (or My Party; the Lewinsky affair was genuinely appalling). But without some element of corruption or vice, agonized agitation over the delayed filing of form 13F seems very much like Republicans hyperventilating over Hillary Clinton earning money from people wanting to hear her speak.
There’s a good reason that the Church doesn’t want to disclose what its market positions are if it can, and I wish its investments could have remained opaque. Have you seen how acrimonious people get? How certain they are that they could invest, divest, or otherwise spend the Church’s funds better than the Church can? The people who want transparency the most are the ones who transparency most harms by tempting them to see themselves as stakeholders and not cross-bearers, as stewards over the vineyard rather than tenders of a vine. If $5 million let us avoid that for twenty years, I’d say it was worth it.