Candidates can get away with using campaign donations to travel to an insurrection, according to a new Federal Election Commission decision—as long as they’re thrifty.
That’s the upshot for Derrick Van Orden, the Republican congressional candidate from Wisconsin who dipped into donor funds to bankroll a trip to DC, where, as The Daily Beast reported last year, he appeared on Capitol grounds during the Jan. 6 riots
On Friday, the commissioners published their unanimous July 26 decision I dismiss you allegations that Van Orden’s Jan. 6 travel expenses constituted unlawful personal use of campaign money—although they did not technically rule it was legal, either.
Instead, the commissioners did not even take up the merits of the case, arguing that the amount of money involved was too small to move ahead with further enforcement action. The agency’s general counsel made the same recommendation in its reportwriting that even if the expenses were personal in nature, the amount in question—a few hundred dollars—was so small that it “does not merit the expenditure of further Commission resources to pursue.”
As often happens in politically charged decisions, the Democratic and Republican commissioners released competing explanations. In this case, those statements had one key difference: The Democrats condemned the expenses; the Republicans were silent.
Democratic commissioners Ellen Weintraub and Shana Broussard were blunt, writing that the decision “should not be construed” as legitimizing the use of campaign donations to disrupt the democratic process.
“Although it is our hope that the events of January 6th are never to be repeated—and this really should not need to be said—we wish to make clear that funding activities that seek to overturn by violence the results of a lawful election is not a permissible use of campaign funds,” their statement said.
Their Republican counterparts also cited the small amount of money involved, but did not take the extra step of condemning the act on principle.
FEC regulations state that travel costs must be “directly related to the campaign.” Van Orden wrote off around $4,000 in transportation and lodging costs for him, his wife, and a staffer. He had just lost his 2020 race, and hadn’t yet declared his 2022 candidacy.
The Van Orden campaign argued the trip was related to pre-scheduled “political meetings,” and that the expenses would be justified because the Jan. 6 rally was “inherently political, akin to any other [p]arty event or committee fundraiser.”
“There is so much that is wrong with that statement,” the Democratic commissioners wrote.
“Activities to disrupt the certification of a presidential election are in no way akin to a party event or fundraiser,” they said in their statement. “The actions of those who breached the Capitol, assaulted Capitol police, and committed various forms of violence, trespass, and assault were illegal. And as the Act makes clear, a contribution may only be used for a lawful purpose.”
Asked for comment, Van Orden characterized the complaint as a “weaponization of government,” and called on his Democratic opponent, Wisconsin state senator Brad Pfaffto retract his claims about the allegations.
“The Democratic Party of Wisconsin filed a complaint that was summarily dismissed due to its obvious political motivation,” Van Orden said, falsely. (The complaint was dismissed because of the amount of money involved; the Democratic commissioners also voted to dismiss.)
“The Democrats did this in an effort to distract from their record of ruining the country over the last two years they have had unchecked power,” he continued. “This is the type of weaponization of government that every American should be wary of and every time my opponent rehashes this proven false claim, he is lying directly to you.”
Van Orden also said he expects “a full retraction” from The Daily Beast, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, and Pfaff.
Last June, The Daily Beast reported that Van Orden had not only attended the rally, but, according to social media posts from the time, had been inside a restricted area on Capitol grounds.