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Political Contributions

Making Political Contributions - 18 U.S. Code § 603

The federal government has strict laws to preserve the integrity of its election process, including how and when political contributions can be made. 

Among the many rules regarding these issues, federal law prohibits U.S. government officers or employees from making political contributions to other officers, employers, or political candidates they work for. This statute is embodied in Title 18, Section 603 of the United States Code. 

Making Political Contributions - 18 U.S. Code § 603

18 U.S.C. 603(a) making political contributions says, “It shall be unlawful for an officer or employee of the United States or any department or agency thereof, or a person receiving any salary or compensation for services from money derived from the Treasury of the United States, to make any contribution within the meaning of section 301(8) of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to any other such officer, employee or person or any Senator or Representative in, or Delegate or Resident Commissioner to, the Congress, if the person receiving such contribution is the employer or employing authority of the person contributing. Any person who violates this section shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than three years or both.

(b) For purposes of this section, a contribution to an authorized committee as defined in section 302(e)(1) of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 shall be considered a contribution to the individual who has authorized such committee.

If you're convicted of making an improper political contribution in this manner, you could face up to three years in prison.

What Does the Law Say?

Title 18 U.S.C. 603 makes it a crime for officers or employees of the United States government to make contributions to any other such officer, or person or any Senator or Representative in, or Delegate, the Congress if the person receiving such donation is the employer or employing authority of the person contributing. 

In the simplest terms possible, it's illegal for a government employee to make a political contribution to anyone they are a subordinate employee (i.e., someone they work for). 

This law aims to prevent any real or perceived conflicts of interest arising from making such contributions.

Related 18 U.S. Code 602 solicitation of political contributions, says it's unlawful for a candidate for Congress, or someone elected to or serving in the office of Senator, or an officer or employee of the United States or any department or agency to “knowingly solicit any contribution within the meaning of the Federal Election Campaign from any other such officer, employee, or person.”

What Is a Political Contribution?

For purposes of this law, a "political contribution" refers to nearly anything of value that is contributed to advance someone politically. Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Monetary Donations: This is the most common form of political contribution. It includes any direct financial support such as giving cash, writing a check, or making an online donation. It also consists of any contractual agreement to contribute politically.
  • Donation of Goods or Services: "In-kind" contributions include donating items or services that have value, such as office supplies for a campaign office, or professional services like graphic design or legal advice.
  • Donations to Political Action Committees (PACs): PACs are organizations that pool contributions from members and donate those funds to campaigns for or against candidates, ballot initiatives, or legislation. Under the law, giving to a committee authorized by the candidate is the same as granting to the candidate directly.
  • Independent Expenditures: These are expenses for political communications that expressly advocate the election or defeat of an identified candidate but are not made in coordination with any candidate or their campaign.

Note that "political contribution" does NOT include an employee's normal activities during their job. Nor does it refer to volunteering for a political campaign; for example, a volunteer is not a government employee.

What Are Some Examples?

Understanding the application of 18 U.S.C. § 603 can be aided by considering a couple of hypothetical scenarios. Here are two theoretical examples where this law might be violated:

Example 1: Gerry, a federal employee in the Department of Energy, hosts a fundraising event at his house to support his boss, who is running for Congress. He pays for the catering and venue expenses out of his pocket. Even though he is not directly giving money to the candidate, these costs associated with the event could be considered a political contribution under 18 U.S.C 603. As a federal employee, John's actions could potentially violate this statute.

Example 2: Sarah, an officer working in a Senator's office, decides to use her professional skills to create a promotional video for the Senator's re-election campaign and does not charge for her services. Given her position, this 'in-kind' contribution could be interpreted as a violation of 18 U.S.C 603, as she has effectively made a political contribution through her donated services.

What Are the Related Federal Laws?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 29, Elections and Political Activities, has several federal laws related to section 603, making political contributions, such as the following:

  • 18 U.S.C. 592 - Troops at polls,
  • 18 U.S.C. 593 - Interference by armed forces,
  • 18 U.S.C. 594 - Intimidation of voters,
  • 18 U.S.C. 595 - Interference by administrative employees of Federal, State, or Territorial Governments,
  • 18 U.S.C. 596 - Polling armed forces,
  • 18 U.S.C. 597 - Expenditures to influence voting,
  • 18 U.S.C. 598 - Coercion by means of relief appropriations,
  • 18 U.S.C. 599 - Promise of appointment by candidate,
  • 18 U.S.C. 600 - Promise of employment or other benefit for political activity,
  • 18 U.S.C. 601 - Deprivation of employment or other benefit for political contribution,
  • 18 U.S.C. 602 - Solicitation of political contributions,
  • 18 U.S.C. 603 - Making political contributions,
  • 18 U.S.C. 604 - Solicitation from persons on relief,
  • 18 U.S.C. 605 - Disclosure of names of persons on relief,
  • 18 U.S.C. 606 - Intimidation to secure political contributions,
  • 18 U.S.C. 607 - Place of solicitation,
  • 18 U.S.C. 608 - Absent uniformed services voters and overseas voters,
  • 18 U.S.C. 609 - Use of military authority to influence the vote of members of the Armed Forces,
  • 18 U.S.C. 610 - Coercion of political activity,
  • 18 U.S.C. 611 - Voting by aliens

What are the Penalties?

Violating U.S.C. 603 is a felony offense under federal law. If you are convicted of unlawfully making a political contribution under this statute, you could face:

  • Fines of up to $250,000; and
  • Up to 3 years in federal prison.

What Are the Common Defenses?

Facing charges under 18 U.S.C. 603 can be daunting, but a skilled federal criminal defense attorney can employ specific defense strategies to combat the charges. These include, but are not limited to: 

  • Lack of Knowledge: You can argue that you were unaware that your actions constituted a political contribution as defined by the law.
  • Not a Federal Employee or Officer: If you can prove that you do not qualify as a federal officer or an employee--or that you were not employed at the time the contribution was made--this could serve as a strong defense.

If you are under criminal investigation or indicted, contact our law firm to examine the case details and legal options moving forward. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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