WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s reelection effort allegedly hid nearly $170 million in spending from mandatory public disclosure by routing payments through companies tied to his former campaign manager, a government oversight group said Tuesday.
The use of firms linked to former campaign manager Brad Parscale masked the ultimate recipients of the money, which the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center described as a “laundering” effort that violates election law, according to a complaint the group filed with the Federal Elections Commission.
Trump communications director Tim Murtaugh disputed the allegations and said the "campaign complies with all campaign finance laws and FEC regulations.”
Most of the payments by Trump's campaign committees were made to American Made Media Consultants, which has received at least $177 million since 2018, according to FEC records. The other firm, Parscale Strategy, has collected at least $32 million during that period, the records show.
The campaign said that American Made Media Consultants was formed to purchase advertising directly — and save money by not relying on middlemen. But records show the company instead acted as a clearinghouse for spending, while still using third party vendors, which it was ostensibly created to avoid, the complaint states.
In at least two cases, outside firms owned by Trump's digital director Gary Coby appeared to have been the firm tapped to make purchases or develop digital communication products, though there is no record of payments made to Coby in Trump's campaign finance disclosures, according to the complaint.
Meanwhile, Parscale Strategy has been used to pay the salaries of some Trump reelection officials, including Lara Trump, the wife of Trump's son Eric, and Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of Trump's eldest son, Don Jr., the complaint states.
In a statement, Murtaugh did not address salaries paid through Parscale Strategies. But he said that America Made Media Consultants is not paid a fee and does not earn a commission.
“It builds efficiencies and saves the campaign money by providing these in-house services that otherwise would be done by outside vendors,” Murtaugh said. "The campaign reports all payments to AMMC as required by the FEC.”
Brendan Fischer, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center, said the campaign is improperly avoiding mandatory disclosure.
“This illegal conduit scheme leaves voters in the dark about the entities working for the Trump campaign, the nature of their services, and the full amount they are paid," said Brendan Fischer, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center. “We don’t know all of what is being hidden by this scheme, but we do know that it violates the law.”
In any event, it's unlikely that the group's complaint will be taken up by the FEC before the election. The federal agency can take years to address complaints, and it often deadlocks along partisan lines.
Earlier this month, one longtime commissioner announced she was stepping down, denying the FEC enough members to legally meet to conduct business.
Vice News first reported that the complaint was filed.
This story was first published on July 28, 2020. It was updated on July 31, 2020, to correct that the existence of the complaint was first reported by Vice News, not by The Wall Street Journal.