Was Senator Chuck Schumer Caught Taking $1 Million in ‘Excessive Contributions’?

Trump supporters raised the issue of past campaign finance violations to question Schumer's fitness to hold office in December 2018.

Image via NASA / Bill Ingolls / Wikimedia Commons

Claim

In 1998, Senator Chuck Schumer was caught taking $1 million in excessive campaign contributions and failing to properly disclose $4.6 million in expenses, for which he was fined $138,000.

Rating

Schumer's 1998 campaign was assessed a fine of $130,000 by the FEC for "excessive contributions" and "improperly disclosed disbursements."

The fine was primarily related to accounting issues and did not involve the campaign's accepting contributions from prohibited sources or engaging in other prosecutable activity.

Origin

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) is a career politician who cut his teeth in the New York State Assembly before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1981, where he served nine terms prior to winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1998.

As the voice of the opposition party in the Senate, Schumer was frequently at odds with President Trump and the Republicans. These disputes spilled over into social media, where Schumer not only exchanged barbs with the president himself, but was regularly attacked by Trump supporters hoping to discredit him.

In December 2018, some of Trump’s followers shared posts asserting that Schumer had been “caught” accepting excessive campaign contributions and failing to properly disclose expenses in 1998:

With minor variations, all the posts made use of the same wording to promulgate the claim:

The proximate source of the accusation appeared to be an 11 December editorial by Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson attempting to refute the argument that Trump’s alleged hush money payments to mistresses during the 2016 presidential campaign constituted grounds for impeachment because they violated campaign finance laws.

In defense of Trump, Carlson noted that both Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer paid hefty fines to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for past campaign violations yet suffered no further legal consequences for their actions (emphasis added):

There’s no precedent for that argument, to put it mildly. Bill Clinton tried to keep his affair with Monica Lewinsky secret by giving her a government salary. Nobody suggested that was a campaign finance violation. Even when presidents have admittedly violated campaign finance laws, impeachment and felony charges never entered the conversation.

Barack Obama, for example, ran for president in 2008. His presidential campaign was found guilty of campaign violations involving nearly $2 million. That’s almost ten times the payments Trump made. No one was prosecuted for that. The Obama campaign got off with a $375,000 fine to the FEC.

In 1998, Chuck Schumer was caught taking $1 million in “excessive contributions.” He also failed to properly disclose $6.4 million in expenses. The consequences of all this: Schumer paid a $138,000 fine. Chuck Schumer is still in the Senate today.

As we’ve had occasion to explain before, the hush money payments Trump’s attorney admitted making on his behalf and more routine campaign finance violations such as failing to comply with contribution caps or improperly disclosing expenses bear little similarity. Although Obama’s 2008 campaign was indeed fined $375,000 by the FEC for not providing timely notice of contributions exceeding $1,000, the violation was not deemed intentional and did not rise to the level of a prosecutable offense.

Neither did the violations alleged in Schumer’s case rise to the level of a prosecutable offense, as enumerated in an FEC audit report released to the public in April 2001. The figures cited by Carlson roughly matched those contained in a summary of the audit published that May:

Report of Excessive Contributions

In this case, the audit report found that contributions to the Committee totaling $951,454 were in excess of the contribution limits. The Committee refunded, reattributed or redesignated $97,050 of these funds, but not within the time frame required by Commission regulations. The audit report found that $854,404 in excessive contributions still required refunds.

Disclosure of Disbursements

The Committee improperly disclosed disbursements totaling $6,354,835. The majority of errors consisted of multiple disbursements that were added together and disclosed as a single entry per
reporting period for each payee. The Committee filed amended disclosure reports which properly disclosed these disbursements, including the date and amount of each disbursement.

As noted by the FEC, the larger figure ($6,354,835 in improperly disclosed disbursements, characterized as “expenses”) comprised amounts that were erroneously reported as lump sum entries instead of being broken out by date and amount as required. The error was subsequently corrected.

It’s misleading to say that Schumer was “caught” taking excessive campaign contributions. The contributions were categorized by the FEC as such on a technicality: Schumer’s campaign failed to comply with a rule (later dropped from FEC regulations) stipulating that checks accepted from joint bank accounts be signed by both account holders. A small fraction of those donations were duly refunded, leaving an outstanding $854,404 in contributions that still met the criteria for being “excessive,” FEC auditors concluded. The Schumer campaign committee’s lawyer affirmed to Associated Press in April 2003 that:

Schumer ’98 collected roughly $800,000 in $1,000 or less contributions that had only one spouse’s signature, said the lawyer, Lyn Utrecht.

“These are violations that are so technical, the FEC repealed them last year,” [Schumer spokesperson Phil Singer] said. “None of the contributions came from prohibited sources like corporations or foreign nationals. We regret any bookkeeping errors that were made.”

For the latter violation, the campaign agreed to pay a fine of $130,000 (not $138,000, as later claimed by Carlson and others). However, the suggestion that the violations and subsequent fine ought to have disqualified from remaining in office is unrealistic and naive.

“There are always reporting violations in campaigns,” a former FEC commissioner told us in February 2018. Some violations are more serious than others, but even when they result in large civil penalties (as in the cases of the Schumer and Obama campaigns), they are rarely regarded, in the absence of criminal intent, as having any bearing on a candidate’s fitness to hold office. In 1993, for instance, the FEC fined Sen. Bob Dole’s (R-Kansas) 1988 presidential campaign $120,000 for accepting improper corporate donations and exceeding spending limits, yet Dole not only ran for president again but remained in office right up until his retirement in 1996.

Updates
  1. [9 January 2019] Correction: A previous version of this article said Chuck Schumer served three terms in the house; the correct number is nine.
Sources
  • Barrett, Devlin.   “Schumer Has Collected $14.8M in Campaign Funds.”
        Associated Press.   16 April 2003.

  • Berke, Richard L.   “Dole Campaign from 1988 Gets $120,000 Fine.”
        The New York Times.   7 August 1993.

  • Carlson, Tucker.   “NBC Is Disgusted by Trump, Would Never Tolerate Paying Off Female Accusers — Except Under Extreme Circumstances.”
        Fox News.   12 December 2018.

  • Haberman, Maggie.   “Obama 2008 Campaign Fined $375,000.”
        Politico.   4 January 2013.

  • Hernandez, Raymond.   “Auditors Suggest Schumer Return $854,000 to Donors.”
        The New York Times.   21 April 2001.

  • Kasprak, Alex.   “Election Law Violations Compared: Obama 2008 vs. Trump 2016.”
        Snopes.com.   22 August 2018.

  • Tatum, Sophie and Kara Scannell.   “Michael Cohen Sentenced to Three Years in Prison After Admitting He Covered Up Trump’s ‘Dirty Deeds.'”
     & nbsp; CNN.   12 December 2018.

  • Associated Press.   “Audit Finds Refunds Due.”
        22 April 2001.

  • FEC Record.   “Audit of Schumer ’98.”
        May 2001.

  • Federal Election Commission.   “Public Issuance of the Final Audit Report on Schumer ’98.”
        13 April 2001.

  • Los Angeles Times.   “Trump Tweets About ‘Crying’ Chuck Schumer.”
        10 May 2017.

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