Guest: Campaign finance expert Brendan Fischer of Documented; Also: My ridiculous, couldn't-possibly-be-true George Santos theory...
By Brad Friedman on 1/25/2023, 6:22pm PT  

On today's BradCast we focus on two different rightwing scammers: The Heritage Foundation and George Santos. [Audio link to full show is posted below this summary.]

The Heritage Foundation's decades-long effort to suppress the vote received a multi-million dollar boost following the 2020 election. Also, there is some new news today on what appears to be a fairly huge campaign finance violation by newly-elected Republican pathological liar, Rep. George Santos. But is it possible that Santos' scam is larger than anybody seems to yet appreciate?

We're joined today to discuss both scammers by BRENDAN FISCHER, one of the nation's foremost campaign finance experts who now serves as Deputy Executive Director for Documented, an investigative watchdog and journalism organization.

For some time, Fischer's group has been digging into and exposing the multi-state, multi-million dollar campaign by the rightwing Heritage Foundation's political action offshoot, Heritage Action. The "dark money" group has been pushing new voter suppression bills through swing-state legislatures with copy and paste "model legislation" in the wake of false claims of fraud in the 2020 Presidential election. Their work is often disguised --- as Executive Director Jessica Anderson was caught boasting to donors about in a 2021 video tape --- to have that "grassroots, ya know, from the bottom-up type of vibe."

Documented recently unearthed Heritage's four-page "Election Integrity Plan" [PDF] from 2021. It details the effort to push restrictions on voting through state legislatures after "in some cases, we actually draft" the bills for them, as Anderson, a former Trump official, is seen bragging to donors on that tape.

"Iowa's the first state that we got to work in," she explains, "and we did it quickly and we did it quietly. Honestly? Nobody noticed!" Anderson also cites "eight key provisions" the group supposedly was able to get into Georgia's controversial 2021 voter suppression measure, SB202, which was quickly signed into law --- supposedly at Heritage's urging --- by Gov. Brian Kemp.

IA and GA were two of "19 states [that] passed 34 laws restricting access to voting" in 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice that year, more than in any year since they began tracking such legislation in 2011.

Earlier this month, in addition to obtaining and publishing Heritage Action's "Election Integrity Plan", Fischer joined with Ed Pilkington at The Guardian to detail the organization's previously-unreported tax filings from 2021 [PDF], detailing more than $5 million in outside lobbying services in at least 24 states. That, after spending $0 on outside lobbying the previous year. The anti-democracy "dark money" outfit also spent more than $6 million on contractors for "marketing and advertising" in 2021, a substantial increase from the year before. The expenditures including more than a million dollars spent in support of GA's bill alone. In all, as Fischer and Pilkington report, Heritage's "Election Integrity Plan" earmarked at least $24 million to push these measures in at least eight swing-states over the past two years.

In addition to efforts to adopt restrictions on voting in the states, Heritage also worked to block legislation that would protect voting rights at the federal level. "The millions of dollars that Heritage Action spent in 2021 included substantial expenditures to pressure [Senators Joe] Manchin and [Kyrsten] Sinema in order to not reform the filibuster and thwart democracy reform legislation," Fischer tells me today.

"In West Virginia, in particular, they also did it with drummed-up fake grassroots activity," he explains. "Heritage Action and other groups organized buses to bus activists from out of state to West Virginia for a rally that was intended to 'save the filibuster' and protest Manchin's potential openness to changing the filibuster rules." It worked. Manchin and Sinema refused to reform the Senate's anti-democratic filibuster rule to pass the landmark Freedom to Vote Act in 2021. That measure would have been the most comprehensive voting rights and campaign finance reform measure since the 1960s. And, yes, as Fischer notes, the bill would have also "ended dark money!"

We've got a lot more to discuss along those lines with Fischer today. But, as long as he was here, there was an unrelated matter I wanted to get his thoughts on.

On Tuesday night, newly elected Republican Congressman and unrepentant liar George Santos amended several of his campaign finance disclosure documents. Santos had previously claimed in FEC disclosures that he had loaned his own campaign some $700,000. That was already suspicious, given that two years earlier, Santos claimed to have been making about $50,000/year. But, as The Daily Beast's Roger Sollenberger noticed on Tuesday, his amended forms now claim the funds did not come from him personally --- though they don't explain where the money actually did come from. Any campaign donation that large from someone other than the candidate would be an unlawful contribution.

While the Santos campaign seems to be admitting to what Josh Marshall characterizes as "major crimes" in their new filings, I have a different, completely ridiculous, couldn't-possible-be-true theory to ask Fischer about today: Is it possible that nobody actually gave $700,000 to Santos' campaign? That it was a paper claim only? There was no such loans at all?

Of course, that seems absurd, but this is George Santos we're talking about. More to the point, it should be noted that last year Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) successfully won a case at the corrupt U.S. Supreme Court which held that personal loans made to campaigns by candidates could actually be paid back after the election, in unlimited amounts, by anyone else. Lobbyists, etc. Is it even possible that Santos could have claimed to have made those personal loans to his campaign but that no money was actually ever given to his campaign at all? Allowing him to be "repaid" later by others after the election? It would certainly be a swell way for a wayward conman like Santos to make a cool $700,000, no?

I pose the question about this to Fischer with the full expectation that I'll be told there's no way something like that could have happened without it being discovered by officials long ago. Tune in to hear his response...

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