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Last year, a Department of Defense contractor quietly donated half a million dollars to a group supporting President Donald Trump’s reelection.
Once a watchdog organization noticed it, the contribution raised an alarm. Federal contractors are not allowed to donate to political entities. And groups are required by law to examine all donations for potential legal issues. If they discover that a contractor has made a contribution, the money has to be returned.
The other unusual aspect of the donation was the man behind it. Randy Perkins, the founder of DOD contractor AshBritt Environmental, had no history of six-figure contributions to federal political groups, although he has been a regular donor to Republicans for the past 15 years. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Democrat in 2016.
The watchdog group pointed out that the money came in a day after AshBritt won a supplemental contract award worth $460,000 from the DOD for wildfire cleanup, bringing its contract total to about $1.7 million.
Asked about the donation, Perkins said he had meant to make a personal donation to express his support for specific Trump policies: “I actually think this administration cares deeply about children and mental health issues.” He said the contract extension had nothing to do with the contribution.
America First Action, the Trump super PAC that accepted the donation, adjusted its report on the source of the funds only after the watchdog group, the Campaign Legal Center, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. Since America First’s creation in 2017, it has refunded just a fraction of 1% of all the funds it has raised.
If you’ve been hearing about America First recently, it’s likely because two associates of presidential lawyer Rudy Giuliani were arrested on allegations that they illegally funneled money to the group.
But that case is not the only problem that has ensnared the PAC as its role in backing Republican candidates has grown.
In another instance, the American subsidiary of a Canadian company made three donations totaling $1.75 million to America First in 2018. In another complaint, the Campaign Legal Center questioned the source of the donation and alleged that Wheatland Tube LLC may have violated laws against foreign nationals contributing to federal campaigns. The company declined to comment on the matter.
Last year, Common Cause, the political reform group, asked the FEC to determine whether the Trump campaign had illegally coordinated with America First and America First Policies, a related group that can raise money without disclosing its donors. The complaint alleged that the president and his campaign were improperly soliciting contributions for the two entities.
The FEC has not acted on any of these complaints to date, and it currently lacks a quorum to vote on enforcement actions proposed by its staff.
“The number of complaints is pretty remarkable,” said Ann Ravel, a Democrat who served as chair of the FEC in 2015.
America First communications director Kelly Sadler told ProPublica that the group takes its obligations seriously and goes to great lengths to comply with the law.
The PAC has denied any wrongdoing in the criminal case against the Giuliani associates. Sadler said the contribution at the heart of the indictment has been placed in a segregated account and will remain there “until these matters are resolved and a court determines the proper disposition of the funds.”
As a super PAC, America First can take unlimited donations from corporations and individuals. In return, it is not supposed to coordinate with campaigns, which are restricted in the amount of donations they may accept.
America First has raised more money to support Trump’s reelection than any super PAC. It is currently chaired by Linda McMahon, and it has raised nearly $50 million over the last two years, including about $9 million in this election cycle to reelect Trump.
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