Ted Lieu’s Stanford Donations Likely Legal but May Raise Ethical Questions, Campaign Finance Expert Says

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California Congressman Ted Lieu is facing questions about at least $50,000 in campaign donations he made in 2017 and 2018 to Stanford University, where his son is now a student.

According to Federal Election Commission records, Lieu has made at least two $25,000 donations from his campaign funds to Stanford, one in September 2017 and another the following June. Lieu, a four-term congressman who was first elected in 2014, received his undergraduate degrees from Stanford in 1991.

One of Lieu’s two sons is now a student in the Stanford class of 2025, according to a social media profile and a student profile page on the university’s website. That’s leading some to question whether Lieu made the contributions to benefit his children, and whether the contributions may have violated campaign finance laws that prohibit candidates from personally benefitting from charitable donations. “Campaign committees can give gifts to charity,” according to the FEC. However, “The amount donated to a charitable organization cannot be used for purposes that personally benefit the candidate.”

A writer for Red State questioned Lieu’s Stanford donations more than two years ago.

In an interview with National Review, former FEC chairman Bradley Smith said it’s unlikely that Lieu has crossed any legal line with his donations to his alma mater. Campaign finance law prohibits using campaign funds for personal use, Smith said, but the money can be used for any other lawful purpose, including donations to universities and other charitable organizations.

“It’s actually relatively common for congressmen, especially senators who might have big campaign funds built up, to give a bunch of money to their alma mater,” Smith said, noting that it’s more common when a politician is retiring or has leftover money from a state campaign fund that can’t be used in a federal race. “If you go around the country, you can find lots of universities that have centers named for a former senator or congressman.”

Considering that the donations were made more than three years ago, Smith said the only way Lieu would probably run into legal trouble is if there was a clear quid pro quo uncovered.

“Unless you really had a clear agreement – I will give you this and you will guarantee me he’s going to get in – I don’t think it does it,” said Smith, who is the founder and now chairman of the Institute for Free Speech in Washington D.C. “And I don’t think you’re likely to have that clear agreement just because of the time lag. … You can’t count on the same admissions officers, provost, president. All of those things can change in that time.”

Smith also noted that $50,000 likely isn’t a terribly large sum of money for Stanford.

But just because the donations were legal, doesn’t mean they don’t come with ethical questions for voters.

“He might have well known, thought, intended that this would help grease the skids for junior down the road, if junior decides he wants to go to Stanford. I don’t think that makes it illegal,” said Smith, who argued in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed that hush-money payments to Donald Trump’s alleged mistresses were not campaign expenditures.

“There’s a lot of things that may raise ethical questions, that may be legit issues to raise and ask voters if they care about these issues, but that doesn’t make them all illegal,” he said.

Attempts by National Review to reach Lieu via his campaign email were unsuccessful Thursday. Media contacts for Stanford did not immediately respond to an email.

Lieu’s campaign raised just shy of $1.8 million during the 2017-18 campaign cycle, and had operating expenditures of just over $700,000, according to FEC records. He easily defeated his Republican challenger, winning 70 percent of the vote in 2018.

The two $25,000 donations to Stanford were among Lieu’s biggest expenditures during that election cycle; his only bigger expenditures were two American Express payments. He made a handful of other charitable donations from his campaign account during that period, but none were nearly as big as the donation to Stanford. A $5,160 donation to the Torrance Educational Foundation and a $5,000 donation to the Coalition for Clean Air were the next biggest donations. Lieu also made a $1,500 donation and a $1,000 donation to Georgetown University, where he attended law school.

In 2019, Stanford was one of the prominent universities caught up in “Operation Varsity Blues,” a $25 million criminal conspiracy to influence undergraduate admissions. A former Stanford sailing coach was one of the people indicted in the scandal.

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