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More On The Clintons' Piggy Bank

Just to pick up where Mike left off, the prospect of the Clintons self-funding part of Hillary's campaign really does raise a lot of questions, some of them uncomfortable. For example, according to this Washington Post story from last year, Bill frequently commands between $200,000 and $300,000 per speech (with foreign clients usually paying the highest prices). What's to stop Bill from using the speaking circuit as a kind of soft-money operation on steroids--soliciting lavish speaking fees from tycoons around the world (see the full roster of clients and fees here) that end up in the Clinton campaign's coffers?

Technically speaking, I guess there's the FEC to stop it. A Boston Globe story from June 5, 2003 (doesn't appear to be online) noted the following in the context of the Kerry campaign:

Under the law, Teresa Heinz Kerry, like any other donor, cannot give more than $2,000 each to her husband's primary and general election campaigns. The law also restricts Kerry from tapping any portion of his wife's fortune - estimated at $550 million, which placed her among last year's Forbes magazine list of the richest 400 Americans - that is solely in her name.

Yet the law also allows two ways for her wealth to benefit his campaign.

Depending on how the Supreme Court rules on a new campaign finance law, Heinz Kerry could spend as much of her own money as she wishes on "issue ads," advertisements that advance a cause or theme without directly naming a federal political candidate. By the same token, she could donate unlimited sums to groups running their own issue ads.

In addition, the law allows Kerry to tap up to 50 percent of any assets the couple jointly owns, including real estate. Heinz Kerry had four significant properties prior to her marriage to Kerry in 1995: an estate outside Pittsburgh, a townhouse in Washington's Georgetown section, and vacation homes on Nantucket and in Ketchum, Idaho. When they married, Heinz Kerry and her husband jointly bought a townhouse on Beacon Hill's tony Louisburg Square. That home is now thought to be worth $7 million.

So it sounds like Bill could only use the soft-money-on-steroids approach to fund an issue-ad campaign. That is, unless the Clintons' lawyers and accountants figured out a way to quickly convert that money into assets that are jointly-owned, which would allow the Clinton campaign to use 50 percent of them. Sounds a bit like alchemy to me (particularly after the Kerry campaign conceded it was almost impossible). On the other hand, what does it mean to "jointly purchase" an asset? Did anyone ever verfiy that John Kerry had put up exactly half the money for his and Teresa's Beacon Hill townhouse?  

And there's also this quote from Bill in December, courtesy of The Politico:

“Let’s think of somebody I really admire, the mayor of New York City, Mike Bloomberg,” Clinton said. “I like him; he’s a really good mayor. But if he’s runs for president, he can spend a billion dollars and not miss it. That’s real money to most of us.* Under the law, there are no constraints.”

He railed against the Supreme Court for blocking some attempts to limit the influence of money in politics.

“We are very frustrated because we have a Supreme Court that seems determined to say that the wealthier have more right to free speech than the rest of us.”

And he implied that he would not use his own funds to support his wife's candidacy.

“For example, they say you couldn’t stop me from spending all the money I’ve saved over the last five years on Hillary’s campaign if I wanted to, even though it would clearly violate the spirit of campaign finance reform,” he said.

It's not clear whether Bill is refering to issue ads or an actual contribution. If it's the latter, then at least someone thinks this can be done...

P.S. If there are any campaign finance experts out there who can clarify some of the ambiguities here, by all means post a comment and I'll re-post it here.

*That's real money to most of us? Actually, $1,000 or $5,000 or $10,000 is real money to most of us. One billion dollars is completely beyond comprehension.

--Noam Scheiber