Senator Feingold faces allegations of federal law violations

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New reports show that Senator Feingold may have violated federal laws related to the Hatch Act — which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities. These allegations are serious, and Senator Feingold should come clean about the conversations he had and the shadow campaign that continued to operate while he was at the State Department.

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Republicans accused Democrat Russ Feingold of violating the Hatch Act by planning his U.S. Senate run while working for the U.S. State Department.

Mike Duffey, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, filed the complaint Tuesday with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. In asking for an investigation, Republicans allege that Feingold engaged in political activities as a federal employee.

The Feingold campaign said the complaint had no merit.

It’s very common for political parties to file complaints against candidates from the other party in the heat of an election. Rarely do these complaints move forward. In this case, Feingold is no longer a federal worker.

The complaint was filed just days after Wisconsin Watchdog.org, a conservative website, raised questions about Feingold’s political activities while working for the federal government.

From June 18, 2013, to March 6, 2015, Feingold served as U.S. Special Envoy for the African Great Lakes Region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was appointed to the post by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Republicans claim that during his time as a federal employee, Feingold “continued to engage in partisan political activity by soliciting support for his future campaign” for the Senate. In 2011, Feingold formed Progressives United, a political action committee that Republicans said was created “to lay the groundwork for a future run for office.”

From Wisconsin Watchdog:

Russ Feingold appears to be changing his story about exactly when he decided to run for U.S. Senate.

But does the Middleton Democrat’s narrative tweak speak to bigger problems he may be facing with the federal Hatch Act?

In a radio interview this week with WADR FM, a community radio station in Janesville, Feingold said he waited until he left the State Department in March 2015 to decide whether to make another Senate run.

He told Politico a different story a year ago.

“Even though Feingold told his wife over a fish sandwich lunch last summer (2014) in Tomahawk, Wis., that he wanted to run again, he cautioned that the personal decision was only ‘1 percent of the equation’ — the rest being whether voters and party officials wanted him to run,” reporter Manu Raju in an Aug. 4, 2015 piece headlined, “Inside Russ Feingold’s Comeback Attempt.”

In July 2015, Feingold told liberal Madison station WORT 89.9 FM that he decided in July 2014 that he wanted to take back the seat he lost to Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, in 2010.

“I decided that I would never run again unless I really wanted to, if I really felt like it, and about last year this time, I realized that time had come,” Feingold said. “I was starting to feel very excited about serving the people of Wisconsin, but none of that is the important thing. The important thing is whether people wanted me to do it. It doesn’t matter if I want to do it, if people don’t want me to do it I shouldn’t come back. So I started finding out what the attitude was about and I found that people were really in need of things to be turned around in Wisconsin.”

The liberal’s great epiphany to run again, according to what he previously said, came while he was employed in the executive branch of government.

Political visions on the taxpayers’ dime?

Secretary of State John Kerry tapped Feingold to serve as special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa in July 2013. He served in that role until March 2015 – several months after he “realized the time had come” to run for office.

An Associated Press story on Feingold’s State Department departure noted the buzz surrounding a Feingold campaign.

“Russ Feingold is leaving his position as a special envoy in Africa amid speculation he will try to reclaim his former US Senate seat in 2016,” stated the lead of the story, headlined, ‘Russ Feingold to leave special envoy post as speculation grows he’ll challenge Ron Johnson.’

Feingold had multiple conversations with senior Democratic leaders about the potential of a re-election bid during his tenure at the State Department. Those conversations, depending on when they occurred, could land the candidate in trouble with the Hatch Act, the nearly 80-year-old federal law that outlines what executive branch employees can and cannot do related to political activity.

Among its many prohibitions, the action does not allow preliminary candidacy activity like “meeting with individuals to plan the logistics and strategy of a campaign.”

Beyond hinting to fellow Dems in 2013 that he might run again in 2016, we know that a top party official spoke with Feingold in January 2015 – before the former senator left the State Department – about Feingold running for his old seat.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, “said he talked to former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in early January about a potential rematch against Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis). Feingold has been seriously considering a run and Tester said he learned his lesson from what many Democrats viewed as a lackluster 2010 campaign,” stated a Feb. 5, 2015 story in The Hill.

Prior to leaving the State Department, Feingold met with some old Dem Party friends to discuss his political future.

“Russ Feingold has been reaching out to supporters in recent weeks to discuss a 2016 Senate bid to retake his old seat from Republican Ron Johnson,” stated a Feb. 26, 2015 story in the Huffington Post. “Multiple sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity told HuffPost that in recent months, Feingold has talked to Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), among others.”

Now, all of that reaching out and brainstorming about campaign possibilities while he worked at the State Department could be legally problematic for this Everlasting Gobstopper of politics.

Hatch Back

“Because the Hatch Act has been interpreted to prohibit preliminary activities regarding candidacy, any action that can reasonably be construed as evidence that an individual is seeking support for or undertaking an initial ‘campaign’ to secure a nomination or election to office would be viewed as candidacy for purposes of the Hatch Act,” the U.S. Office of Special Counsel wrote in a legal opinion.

It’s clear that Feingold was talking about a Senate run while he was at the State Department, and he was talking with people who typically talk about the fundamentals of campaigns.

Did the conversations involve strategy and logistics?

Feingold’s campaign did not return requests for comment.

The Hatch Act’s prohibition against candidacy “extends not merely to the formal announcement of candidacy but also to the preliminaries leading to such announcement and to canvassing or soliciting support or doing or permitting to be done any act in furtherance of candidacy,” a 2007 letter from OSC states.

And then there’s the matter Feingold’s Progressives United Inc., the liberal activist organization he founded in 2011. The political action committee arm of PU, as has been widely reported, gave just 5 percent of the money it raised to progressive candidates and political parties. PU spent much of the $7.1 million it took in on itself, including hefty salaries and consulting fees for its founder and key members of PU’s staff, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.org.

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported earlier this year, Feingold’s campaign paid $1.9 million for the services of the same direct mail, telemarketing and online firms employed by Progressives United Inc. and the PU PAC. During its run, the two entities paid the three firms $6.3 million.

And Feingold’s campaign bought the PU PAC mailing list and the campaign has to date raised about $290,000 from people who donated to the PAC in 2014, the Journal Sentinel reported.

Progressives United looks even more like the pretext to a political campaign when you consider that eight former PU staff members now work for Feingold’s political operation, most of those in key positions. They represent a third of the Democrat’s campaign staff, according to the Journal Sentinel.

Mary Irvine, Feingold’s former Senate chief of staff, pocketed nearly $318,000 from the 505(c)(4) Progressive United Inc. and the PU PAC as vice president of the nonprofit before she joined Feingold at the State Department, according to a June 2015 story in the Journal Sentinel.

Russ for Wisconsin, Feingold’s Senate campaign, paid Irvine $26,788.23 and reimbursed her $2,000 in the third quarter of 2015, according to the Federal Election Commission.

As he was preparing to leave his State Department post in late February 2015, Feingold called Irvine his “once, current, and I hope future chief of staff.”

The potential political dangers of intertwining staff members of nonprofit political activist organizations and campaigns have dogged Hillary Clinton’s run for president.

Publicized email chains between top Clinton aide Huma Abedin and Douglas Band, an attorney for the Clinton Foundation, show the two discussing potential meetings Clinton and a big foundation donor.

“During one exchange, Band requests Abedin’s help in arranging a meeting between Clinton and the crown prince of Bahrain, who was also a top donor to the Clinton Foundation. Band refers to the Bahraini prince as a “good friend of ours,” UPI reported earlier this month.

In this week’s interview with the Janesville community radio station, Feingold said his “life isn’t just about running for office.”

His nearly 35-year career in politics, his political connections and the people he has surrounded himself with may suggest otherwise.