Arthur Winn, Florida, and campaign finance

This afternoon, prominent housing developer Arthur Winn will appear in federal court in Boston and be sentenced for funneling $4,500 in illegal campaign contributions to a pair of Massachusetts congressmen. This evening, it’s very likely that Mitt Romney will stomp all over Newt Gingrich, thanks in large part to Romney’s overwhelming advantage in Florida’s advertising-heavy primary. These two developments are connected, two extremes bookending a warped campaign finance system — or, at least, that’s what Winn’s attorneys believe. Winn pleaded guilty in October to reimbursing relatives for $4,500 in campaign donations to Reps. Steve Lynch and Michael Capuano. A shell company connected to Winn’s failed Columbus Center project, Winn Columbus Center LP, also pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance violations, waived the statute of limitations on older Winn-related contributions that were reimbursed, and was fined $1.6 million. Martin Raffol, a former executive working in Winn’s subsidized housing business, previously pleaded guilty to another campaign reimbursement scheme, and was sentenced to three months in a halfway house.

The investigation into Winn’s firm began when former state senator Dianne Wilkerson brought a pair of undercover FBI agents to a June, 2008 fundraiser at the Millennium Bostonian Hotel, a property Winn developed. The US attorney says that between Arthur Winn and Raffol, federal and state candidates received roughly $150,000 in improper campaign contributions; at the same time, prosecutors have also said Winn didn’t know about Raffol’s activities. Because some contributions were made to state candidates, and other contributions lie outside the statute of limitations, Arthur Winn pleaded guilty to a pair of federal misdemeanors, to the tune of a relatively paltry $4,500.

In arguing that Arthur Winn shouldn’t get any prison time, Winn’s lawyers have put the entire federal campaign finance system on trial. “The sums of money in question are far from influential in modern campaign finance terms, where individuals through Super-PACs and other mechanisms regularly and lawfully take credit for hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in campaign contributions,” Winn’s lawyers argue in documents filed with the federal court. They argue that the 2006 donations Arthur Winn illegally reimbursed could have all been made in Winn’s name without exceeding federal campaign finance limits, and that Winn’s 2007 misdemeanor put him $700 above the personal contribution limit. They argue that Winn could have set up dozens of PACs to legally funnel tens of thousands of dollars to federal candidates, and that, in an era of of unlimited federal contributions, “A sentence of imprisonment will not deter others who seek to bypass the individual contribution limits of the campaign finance system.”

“To reason that a multimillion dollar donation to a PAC on behalf of a particular candidate cannot corrupt as a matter of law but that less than $5,000 worth of reimbursed contributions does corrupt does not make reasonable sense,” Winn’s lawyers argue. “That one is constitutionally sacrosanct but the other should result in a prison sentence is equitably unreasonable.”

Whether or not a federal judge goes along with Winn’s arguments, there’s no small irony in the fact that they’re being made on a day when money in politics breaks new ground. Gingrich’s campaign has been fueled almost exclusively by a pair of $5 million donations from a casino magnate to a super PAC that’s been savaging Romney across the South. He’s failing in Florida because his moon colony pitch has become a joke, but also because a Romney-friendly super PAC has heavily outgunned Gingrich’s group, spending 3.7 times as much on television ads.

The Atlantic notes that while the PACs’ expenditures are being updated in real time, their financial backers don’t have to be revealed until long after the ballots are counted. And, as Stephen Colbert’s meta-lampooning of the super PAC era has pointed out, the groups acting as proxies for Romney and Gingrich are on the sunnier side of the disclosure line. Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, a group that’s been airing ads attacking Elizabeth Warren, is set up as a nonprofit, so its unlimited donors are disclosed to the IRS, but not to the public. 

                                                                                                                                                            –PAUL MCMORROW


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