(CNN)Rep. Mia Love's campaign has informed the Federal Election Commission that it will refund or redesignate less than half of what the government says was more than a million dollars improperly raised for a primary that was never expected to happen, according to documents reviewed by CNN.
Rep. Mia Love's campaign admits to improperly raising primary election funds
The commission sent Love a letter in August saying the Utah Republican's campaign had violated federal guidelines about money for primaries. In Utah, candidates are not allowed to raise such funds if they have no primary, according to the FEC and experts specializing in election law. On Friday, Love's campaign responded to regulators, telling the FEC they would refund or redesignate some, but not all, of that money.
CNN's KFile reached out to Love, her campaign, her campaign treasurer and her campaign manager on Thursday about the contributions. They did not respond to CNN's request for comment. After publication, Love's campaign said in a statement they did prepare for a primary challenge by gathering signatures to appear on the primary ballot. Love's campaign said they planned to redesignate about $370,000 and may refund less than $10,000 in donations.
In April, Love secured the nomination to seek a third term for her seat in Utah's 4th congressional district at Utah's nominating convention. In Utah, if a candidate receives such a nomination at a convention, like Love did, then no primary is held. At no point prior to April's convention did Love face a primary challenger or the threat of one.
But Love raised $1,153,624 and designated that money for a primary, according to the letter from the FEC to Love. Even after Love secured the nomination at the convention, she raised an additional $372,468 specifically designated for the primary that her campaign knew would not take place.
Experts say the money raised is a serious violation of FEC rules.
"It's a big deal, it is a big deal," said Ann Ravel, who served as FEC Commissioner under President Barack Obama. "If you're raising primary funds and you have no primary, on its face, it does seem to be inappropriate and it's a lot of money."
The FEC's letter to Love's campaign described the problem with the primary funds and said the contributions would have to be refunded or designated for the general election. Redesignation is a process in which funds can be moved to a general election fund, so long as it is done within 60 days of receiving the contribution.
But all of the donations to Love were made more than 60 days ago. FEC spokesman Christian Hilland could not comment on the specific case, but said that violating that 60-day rule could prompt penalties.
Love's campaign lawyers responded on Friday to the FEC, saying they would refund or redesignate contributions, but only those received after she was nominated at the convention on April 21. Love's campaign will have to notify donors their money is being moved to be used in the general election and those donors will be able to request refunds. If primary contributions received exceeded the maximum $2,700 donation allowed for a general election, then that money would need to be refunded.
"It seems clear that any contribution designated for the primary election received after the convention would have to be refunded or redesignated," said Brendan Fischer, the director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, an organization that supports campaign finance reform. "I think there is an argument that, Mia Love knew earlier than the convention that it would be an uncontested primary, but their letter suggests there may have been some ambiguity. So they might be able to get away with it but it's certainly problematic because of this sort of quirk in Utah law that allows a candidate to raise money above and beyond the federal limits that would apply in elections in almost any other state."
The campaign told the FEC they would not be refunding the money that it received before the convention, citing a similar situation involving Utah Sen. Mike Lee's 2016 re-election campaign.
In that case, Lee was allowed to keep money he raised for a primary that didn't occur. That year, Lee raised money for a possible primary challenge, but he ended up as the only candidate with enough signatures to get on the ballot. In that instance, the FEC ruled Lee could keep his money because of the "unique facts" of the case in which he expected a primary challenge.
Love's campaign, unlike Lee's, however, appears to have not prepared for any primary challenger and Love ran unopposed and even Love's lawyers admit the differences between the situations.
According to Paul S. Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation with government watchdog Common Cause, a key difference between Love and Lee is that Lee's campaign worked as if it was expecting a primary challenger, and raised money accordingly, while Love's campaign had no expectation of a primary challenger.
"It's a really important factual distinction that makes Mia Love's claim on this primary money even weaker than Mike Lee's claim on it," Ryan said. "I'm realizing after reading their response, reading a little bit more about the Mike Lee matter, that this is a more definitive attempt by the Love committee to game the contribution limits. That's what it strikes me as now."
In response to the FEC, lawyers for Love said they would have to get a further opinion from the FEC's counsel or commissioners to see if the FEC would take the same opinion on their donations raised before the convention as Lee's donations. They cited a conversation they had with an FEC election official when preparing their response where that official said the FEC's response to Lee applied only to his specific case.
It is unclear if the FEC will accept Love's rationale for keeping the pre-convention donations or will say all the money will have to be refunded or redesignated. Working in Love's favor is that there are currently two vacant seats on the six-seat commission, so any decision would have to be unanimous.
"They are probably betting that there's no way there are four votes on the FEC to come after them for this, that's part of what's in the background here," Ryan said. "So I think they're really pushing the boundaries of the law in order to game the contribution limits predicting that they will get away with it, and it's like we have correct protection, but just because you can get away with something doesn't make it right."
UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect comments from a Love campaign statement released after initial publication.