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.