Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Crist sued over GOP contributions

Interesting news about a lawsuit filed by GOP donors who gave money to Charlie Crist before he abandoned the party...

What rights come with a campaign donation?  Is there an implied contract that the candidate will fulfill certain promises?  Is there a legal obligation to preserve party loyalty?  Politicians have switched parties before, but only rarely in the middle of an election like this.

Looking at this case just in simple fraud/contract law terms, I can see an argument supporting plaintiffs' claims here...without getting too deep in "lawyerese" here, the basic idea is that if Charlie induced people to give him money based on his representations that he was a Republican, but knew at the time that he intended to run as an independent, and endanger the ability of any Republican to win the seat, then that initial solicitation of money could be fraudulent.  In business, if you get someone to give you money, sign a contract, or give you some other advantage based on a representation you know isn't true or a promise you know you don't intend to keep, it's fraud and the courts can void the benefit you received as a result of your fraud.  

...but does this legal theory apply to campaign finance issues?  How does the First Amendment come into play?  Charlie Crist certainly has the free speech right to say whatever political opinions he wants, and to run for whatever office for which he qualifies with any party he chooses, but does he have the right to do it with money he obtained in an arguably fraudulent manner?

There is a certain amount of dishonesty associated with soliciting donations to run for office in a Republican primary, only to suddenly turn and run as an independent, seek Democratic support and money, and change several fundamental campaign platform issues (for example, Charlie's complete abandonment of his previous pro-life position)Charlie's recent snuggling up to Democrat trial lawyer fundraisers, only further emphasizes the sense of betrayal that many Republicans feel about his candidacy.  It's widely believed that if he is elected, he will chose to caucus with the Democrats rather than the Republicans.  

Does this rise to the level of legal fraud?  I'm not entirely sure.  Is it unethical?  Heck yes.  I will be very interested to see how this case plays out, especially if they are able to make any serious progress before the November elections.  What do you think?


  1. This is a very interesting case. You raise a good point regarding the First Amendment. However, I think it comes down to a very simple question, that if answered in the affirmative, avoids that whole issue: At the time Crist elicited the contributions in question, did he make a "misrepresentation of material fact"?

    All of the remaining elements of common law fraud are met: "upon which the speaker intended another to rely", "upon which the plaintiff relied", "to the plaintiff's detriment", and "damage to the plaintiff was caused thereby".

    I would argue that the material fact was whether Crist, as a longtime Republican Attorney General and Governor, would run in the Republican Primary through the full primary process, and abide by the result of that primary. If he was contemplating running outside of the Republican Party process as early as March, as the Greer/Johnson Tapes seem to indicate, then it appears that this was a misrepresentation of material fact.

    Notably, Florida case law provides two key principles that are relevant regarding fraud:

    First, a person has no obligation to speak about any issue whatsoever. However, when that person endeavors to speak, he is required to speak truthfully and non-deceptively.

    Second, where a person has superior knowledge about the subject matter of his statement, his statement, which would otherwise be considered an opinion, will be considered a statement of fact.

    This issue is not whether he, in his heart of hearts, believed in any given tenet of the Republican platform. This is protected opinion. Rather, the issue was whether he was going to adhere to the Republican primary process, as he stated he would.

    But I'll bet you money, if it's some big law firm representing the contributors/plaintiffs, nothing is going to happen in this case before November. (Can't take a chance that a potential Senator will have it out for the Lobbying Division of your firm...)


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