In 1992, Russ Feingold asked Wisconsin voters to support him in part because he pledged to “rely on Wisconsin citizens, not out-of-staters, to pay for this campaign.” Since that first promise about campaign contributions, Sen. Feingold (D-WI) has made his opposition to money in politics central to his political identity. But the image of a down home political crusader intent on creating tougher campaign finance laws was threatened in 1999, when Feingold and his campaign were found to be in violation of Federal Election Commission reporting requirements.
According to FEC documents, Feingold’s campaign failed to properly report $54,726.73 in campaign contributions during the final weeks of the Senator’s 1998 re-election effort. The cash was split between 51 different contributions by individuals and political action committees. Feingold’s campaign was notified of the violations in October of 1999. The campaign responded by choosing to sign a so-called conciliation agreement, in which they admitted fault and wrongdoing and paid a civil penalty of $9,000.
“On November 23, 1999, the Federal Election Commission accepted the signed conciliation agreement and civil penalty submitted on behalf of Feingold Senate Committee,” a letter from the FEC to Feingold’s campaign reads.
Internal FEC documents related to the case bear the signature of Lois Lerner, the infamous IRS official who used her office to target and harass conservative organizations, including Media Trackers. Before going to work at the IRS, Lerner, a close personal friend of deposed former Wisconsin Government Accountability Board head Kevin Kennedy, spent some time as a lawyer working for the FEC.
The bi-partisan FEC had no qualms about unanimously recommending that the investigation into Feingold’s campaign finance troubles move ahead. The Commission voted 6-0 in favor of pursing Feingold after staff discovered glaring discrepancies between Feingold’s post election campaign cash report and his pre-election filings.
Ironically, just months before being caught by the FEC violating campaign finance laws, Feingold was awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for his work with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in introducing McCain-Feingold, a landmark piece of legislation designed to put stringent restrictions on how political candidates raise and spend money. The bill eventually passed into law in 2002.
In his speech accepting the award, Feingold praised his 1998 re-election campaign as a model of transparency and limited political spending.
“As I was preparing to run for reelection in 1998, I was hoping to win and to return to much unfinished business for Wisconsin and the nation including my bipartisan efforts with John McCain to pass our bill. In the spirit of our legislation, I decided to voluntarily limit my spending in the manner that we hope will become the practice for all candidates,” Feingold declared.
The campaign cash crusader then went on to tout the success that came his way after his decision to limit his own campaign spending in that race.
“After I realized that my opposition was going to lake advantage of my voluntary spending limit by infusing millions of dollars of soft money into the race, I had to make another decision and that was whether to have my allies respond in kind. I simply decided I could not justify being reelected on that basis. But this was not an attempt at political suicide. I honestly believed that if I limited my spending, the people of Wisconsin would see what was happening and would take control. And they did.”
Fast-forward to 2010, when Feingold was ousted from office, and the ex-Senator proceeded to set up an outside spending group called Progressives United. While ostensibly existing to support like-minded candidates for office, the entity really served as a vehicle through which Feingold could keep old staff employed and lay the groundwork for yet another senate campaign in 2016.
Also during the 2016 race, Feingold was hit by the media for reversing his original pledge to raise the majority of his U.S. Senate campaign funds from inside of Wisconsin. “While many major Senate campaigns would brag about that ratio, it’s a reversal from the iconic in-state fundraising pledge that Feingold painted on his garage in a 1992 campaign ad,” a story by National Journal noted.
Whether or not Feingold’s double lifestyle of saying one thing about campaign finance but doing another for himself catches up to him is up to voters this fall.