The recent indictment of conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza is, in many ways, an unremarkable example of a garden variety “straw donor” prosecution.  The Department of Justice cranks out a steady stream of them.  Even the relatively small dollar amount at issue ($20,000) is not especially unusual. DOJ is aggressive in prosecuting even small reimbursement cases.

What did catch our eye, however, is the way in which the government apparently became aware of the alleged reimbursement scheme. For some time, we have been telling clients that either the FEC, DOJ, or both, would eventually figure out how easy it is to detect straw donor schemes by looking closely at patterns in publicly filed FEC disclosure reports. With just a little bit of digging, including some analysis of geographic, employer, and timing data (ideally mapped against other publicly available data about particular donors), your average fourth grader these days could devise an algorithm to tease out reimbursement schemes from the data.

Sure enough, in the press release that accompanied its indictment of Mr. D’Souza, DOJ touted the fact that “the indictment is the result of a routine review by the FBI of campaign filings with the FEC.”  While we do not yet know the details, we suspect this could be evidence that the FBI is beginning to use data analytic techniques to study FEC reports for patterns. Of course, it is also possible that the agents did this the old fashioned way, by eyeballing the reports and looking for visibly obvious patterns, or by following up on a tip. Some supporters of Mr. D’Souza have more nefarious theories of what led the FBI to focus on him. We shall see.

We wrote not long ago here in Inside Political Law about the use by the Moreland Commission in New York of data analytics to identify patterns in campaign disclosure reports. It’s clear that the era of Big Data has arrived for campaign finance law. Expect to see regulators across the country starting to use simple data analytic techniques to ferret out campaign finance violations from public disclosure reports. Journalists are likely to do the same. Soon enough, there will be an app for that.

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Photo of Robert Kelner Robert Kelner

Robert Kelner is the chair of Covington’s Election and Political Law Practice Group. Mr. Kelner provides political law compliance advice to a wide range of corporate and political clients.  His compliance practice focuses on federal and state campaign finance, lobbying disclosure, pay to…

Robert Kelner is the chair of Covington’s Election and Political Law Practice Group. Mr. Kelner provides political law compliance advice to a wide range of corporate and political clients.  His compliance practice focuses on federal and state campaign finance, lobbying disclosure, pay to play, and government ethics laws, as well as legal ethics rules.  His expertise includes the Federal Election Campaign Act, Lobbying Disclosure Act, Ethics in Government Act, Foreign Agents Registration Act, and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  He is also a leading authority on the arcane rules governing political contributions by municipal securities dealers, investment advisers, hedge funds, and private equity funds.  Mr. Kelner advises Presidential political appointees on the complex process of being vetted and confirmed for such appointments.

In addition, he regularly advises corporations and corporate executives on instituting political law compliance programs.  He conducts compliance training for senior corporate executives and lobbyists.  He has extensive experience conducting corporate internal investigations concerning campaign finance and lobbying law compliance, as well as other corporate compliance matters.  Mr. Kelner regularly defends clients in investigations by the Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. House & Senate Ethics Committees, the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, the House & Senate Judiciary Committees, the House Energy & Commerce Committee and its Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, the Senate Finance Committee, the Senate Special Committee on Aging, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and other congressional committees.  He has prepared numerous CEOs and corporate executives for testimony before congressional investigation panels, and he regularly leads the Practicing Law Institute’s training program on congressional investigations for in-house lawyers.  He also defends clients in Lobbying Disclosure Act audits by the GAO and enforcement actions and audits by state election and lobbying enforcement agencies.

Mr. Kelner has appeared as a commentator on political law matters on The PBS News Hour, CNBC, Fox News, and NPR, and he has been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Legal Times, Washington Times, Roll Call, The Hill, Politico, USA Today, Financial Times, and other publications.