A Republican consultant has pleaded guilty to illegally coordinating ad spending between a super PAC and a congressional campaign committee.
While it’s the first U.S. criminal prosecution based on this type of coordination, it likely won't touch off a firestorm of investigations, according to Neil Reiff, a campaign finance attorney at Sandler, Reiff, Lamb, Rosenstein & Birkenstock, P.C.
“I suspect this was a very unusual and egregious case and, at this point, I do not read any tea leaves into this leading into more investigations of coordination,” said Reiff.
Tyler Harber, a native of Knoxville, Tenn., was the campaign manager and general consultant for Virginia Republican Chris Perkins during his 2012 run against Rep. Gerry Connolly (D). To help Perkins’ chances, Harber participated in the “creation and operation” of a super PAC. While soliciting contributions, Harber promised only 2 percent of the group’s budget would go toward “administrative costs.”
After fundraising ($300,000 came from single contributor), he then made and directed “coordinated expenditures by the PAC to influence the election with $325,000 of political advertising opposing a rival candidate,” according to the Justice Department.
Harber then lied multiple times to FBI investigators about his involvement with the super PAC and campaign.
“The coordination of expenditures made them illegal campaign contributions to the authorized committee of Harber’s candidate, and Harber admitted that he knew this coordination of expenditures was an unlawful means of contributing money to a campaign committee,” the Justice Department said in a release. “He further admitted that he used an alias and other means to conceal his action from inquiries by an official of the same political party as Harber’s candidate.”
Consultants have developed opaque ways around the campaign finance laws that prohibit direct PAC and candidate coordination. In Harber’s case, his actions must’ve have had “a real bad set of facts,” according to Reiff.
“While I don’t know how this case got to the Department of Justice, from what I can see, it appears to have had some real aggravating factors,” he said.
Harber named his group National Republican Victory Fund and used a portion of the $325,000 to buy advertising through Jamestown Associates. As part of the commission sharing structure, Harber was paid a percentage of the media buy, which totaled $9,135. The company said it was unaware that he had any affiliation with Perkins’ campaign.
Harber’s family also profited from his illegal activities, according to court filings. Harber and his wife, an aspiring romance novelist, submitted invoices to the super PAC on behalf of a company owned by his mother for $138,000. Of that money, $20,000 went to a downpayment to buy real estate for his mother while the rest was transferred back to Harber who together with his spouse spent the money, according to court filings.
Todd Watson, an attorney for Harber, declined to comment.
The couple later doctored FEC filings to conceal their crime. When a GOP official asked about the expenditures, Harber threatened legal action and halted the inquiry. Still, the FBI interviewed him at this home in Alexandria, Va. in September 2013. During that meeting he stated he met Perkins only once when in fact he had served as his campaign manager. In May 2014, the FBI interviewed Harber’s mother in Ft. Myers, Fla. She also lied to investigators, according to the court filings, saying she received only $5,000 for a “clerical job” for the super PAC.
As part of Harber’s plea deal with the feds, his mother and wife were spared prosecution.
“I see campaigns as being very based in military strategy,” Harber said during a 2010 interview with C&E. “Successful campaigns are organized similarly.”
Harber’s career has included stints at Public Opinion Strategies and at Wilson Research Strategies. He’s also worked as a consultant internationally.
On Thursday he pleaded guilty to one count of coordinated federal election contributions and one count of making false statements to the FBI.
“Today, Mr. Harber took responsibility for violating federal election campaign laws by illegally coordinating payments between a super pac and a candidate’s campaign committee,” Andrew G. McCabe, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, said in a statement. “The FBI will continue to investigate allegations of campaign finance abuse which are in place to ensure openness and fairness in our elections so the people’s interests are protected.”
Harber was released on a $25,000 bond. He's set to return to federal court to be sentenced on June 5. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine, full restitution and a three-year supervised release.
Editorial note: Campaigns & Elections magazine recognized Tyler Harber as a Rising Star in 2010. C&E has revoked that award.