Top Democratic donor breached aggregate contribution limit last year

Fred Eychaner gave a combined $47,200 to candidates — $1,000 more than allowed

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Philanthropist and media mogul Fred Eychaner, the top donor to Democratic super PACs ahead of the 2012 election, last year narrowly exceeded the aggregate limit set on federal-level campaign contributions, research by the Center for Public Integrity indicates.

The revelation comes just as Alabama Republican activist Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee are challenging the federal political contribution ceiling, put in place following the Watergate scandal. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission on Tuesday.

The Center for Public Integrity's analysis indicates Eychaner, an intensely private individual who is nevertheless well-known in Democratic circles, donated $1,000 more than the legal limit during the 2012 election cycle. That is, at its face, a violation of federal law.

Eychaner appears to have tripped up by splitting $47,200 among 14 federal Democratic candidates, including President Barack Obama; Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.; and Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat who won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

During the 2012 election cycle, federal law mandated that an individual could not directly donate more than a combined $46,200 to federal-level candidates.

Futhermore, an individual could not contribute more than $70,800 to parties and PACs during the 2012 cycle. 

Eychaner did not breach that latter limit, donating $61,600 to the Democratic National Committee and $9,200 Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, for a total of exactly $70,800, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of campaign finance data maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics.

"This was an inadvertent error, and a refund has already been requested," said Dave Horwich, a spokesman for Eychaner.

Intentionally breaching the aggregate campaign contribution limit can lead to criminal charges, while inadvertent violations may result in civil fines issued by the Federal Election Commission, with the fine being “proportional to the severity of the violation,” said Paul S. Ryan, an attorney at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.

A seemingly minor offense such as Eychaner’s is still a violation of federal statute, Ryan said.

“The law is the law,” Ryan said. “It’s important that the FEC enforce the law to deter future violations.”

Earlier this year, the Campaign Legal Center, along with the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, urged the FEC to investigate 32 political donors they suspected of violating the aggregate limits. The commission has yet to act on that complaint, which did not include Eychaner by name.

Eychaner is the president and CEO of Chicago-based Newsweb Corp., a business that specializes in printing alternative, ethnic and community newspapers, including the Windy City Times, a paper focused on gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals.

Eychaner is also a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago and a member of the board of directors of the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. In 2010, Obama appointed him to serve on the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Visitor logs show that Eychaner, who bundled more than $500,000 for Obama’s re-election efforts, has visited the White House more than a half-dozen times since January 2012. He was among the guests invited to the March 2012 state dinner with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Eychaner may also hold the distinction of being the first super PAC donor — ever.

In January 2010, EMILY’s List, which supports female Democratic candidates who favor abortion rights, funneled $175,700 from Eychaner into their Women Vote! committee, one of the first independent political committee to use five- or six-figure contributions to expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a federal candidate.

Eychaner's funds then were used to aid Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts special election held after the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy. Super PACs such as Women Vote! were officially sanctioned by the FEC a few months later.

Ahead of the 2012 election, Eychaner contributed $14 million to Democratic super PACs, including $4.5 million to the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action and $750,000 to EMILY’s List’s Women Vote! super PAC.

No other Democratic donor gave more, although it was only a fraction of the more than $90 million donated to Republican super PACs by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam.

Ben Wieder contributed to this report.