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Watchdog groups: Jeb Bush, others violating campaign finance laws

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Two watchdog groups have filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging that four potential 2016 candidates are violating campaign finance laws by claiming that they are not exploring presidential bids in order to raise unlimited amounts of money.

The complaints, from the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21, name three Republicans, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as well as former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat.

"These 2016 presidential contenders must take the American people for fools--flying repeatedly to Iowa and New Hampshire to meet with party leaders and voters, hiring campaign staff, and raising millions of dollars from deep-pocketed mega donors, all the while denying that they are even 'testing the waters' of a presidential campaign," said Paul S. Ryan, Campaign Legal Center Senior Counsel. "But federal campaign finance law is no joke and the candidate contribution limits kick in as soon as a person begins raising and spending money to determine whether they're going to run for office. Bush, O'Malley, Santorum and Walker appear to be violating federal law."

Ryan is referring to the legal limits that kick in when a politician formally acknowledges that he or she is considering a presidential bid. A "testing the waters" committee would allow a candidate to explore a presidential bid and raise money within the federal limits of $2,700 per donor per election without having to disclose its finances. They are not allowed to use the money for actual campaigning. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, has such a committee.

More common are exploratory committees, which allow politicians to behave like candidates. They are subject to donation limits and must disclose their finances, and they can simply be converted into presidential campaign committees if the politicians decide to run. Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and two Republicans, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and businessman Donald Trump, have such committees.

The complaints against the four potential candidates allege they have traveled often to early primary and caucus states to build campaign infrastructure, tried to raise large amounts of cash, and used their fundraising to pay for these efforts. In other words, they're acting just like they're already presidential candidates. So, the groups argue these activites should be curtailed, unless the politicians formally declare presidential bids and subject themselves to fundraising limits and financial disclosure requirements.

"Publicly denying that they are candidates does not exempt these presidential hopefuls from federal election laws passed by Congress to keep the White House off the auction block," Ryan said. "Jeb Bush is reportedly aiming to raise more than $50 million for his super PAC. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has opened an office in Iowa and is raising millions for a political group he created in January. Rick Santorum's own aide is referring to him as a 'candidate.' These individuals are 'candidates' under the law."

The groups say there are other White House hopefuls who "appear to be in violation of the same campaign finance laws," and additional complaints will be filed. The only potential candidates who appear to be complying with federal requirements, they say, are Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has announced his candidacy, Graham, Carson, Webb and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Each complaint includes multiple alleged transgressions ranging from fundraising, to early-state travel, to hiring of staff, to terminology about the status of a politician's status.

The complaint against Bush details his extensive fundraising and travel schedule, and even notes an email solicitation from his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, for his super PAC.

"I know that's a lot to ask, but Jeb is our best chance of taking back the White House in 2016, and I hope that you will join me in pushing him to run," she wrote in a fundraising email for the super PAC, Right to Rise.

O'Malley's complaint details his extensive travel to early primary states and hiring of key staff. The complaint against Santorum includes several examples of his aides openly talking about the prospects for a 2016 campaign. Walker, the complaint against the Wisconsin governor reads, "referred to himself as a 'candidate'" in a March 1, 2015 interview on Fox News Sunday.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.