The Stormy Daniels Hush Money Scandal Is A Big Deal. We're Treating It That Way.

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Americans have a right to follow the money when it comes to campaign spending. Including whether $130,000 in hush money is anonymously funneled to a person who might have damaging information about a major party’s presidential nominee less than a month before the election.

This is at the heart of the complaints that Common Cause filed last month with the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice. We urged each agency to investigate whether President Trump’s campaign violated campaign-finance law as part of a deal to silence Stormy Daniels, an adult film star who allegedly had an affair with Trump in 2006.

According to published reports, Daniels was in talks with media outlets during the fall of 2016 to disclose the details of her relationship with Trump. A week after the leak of the bombshell >Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged about sexual assault, his lawyer, Michael Cohen, arranged to send to Daniels $130,000 through a shell Delaware LLC that he created. Immediately after the October payment, Daniels reportedly stopped talking to media outlets about the alleged affair. Without her confirmation they did not report it, and the campaign entered its closing days.

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New details have come out since The Wall Street Journal reported the payment in January. In Touch magazine released the transcript of a 2011 interview in which Daniels detailed her relationship with Trump. On Tuesday, she denied the affair in a statement that surfaced online, and on Tuesday night she refused to verify the denial — or anything else — on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live.

It is reasonable to question whether the money was intended to quash a salacious story at a pivotal time in a tight election. Specifically: Was the $130,000 payment made in consultation with Trump — or anyone on his campaign team — for the purpose of influencing the outcome of the presidential race? 

If so, someone likely violated federal campaign-finance law. At a minimum, the campaign never reported it. And depending on where the money came from, there could be other violations, too — a violation of the corporate contribution ban if it came from the coffers of the Trump Organization (where Cohen was top lawyer) or some other corporation, or a violation of the $2,700 contribution limit if it came from an individual other than Trump.

In normal times, a scandal of this magnitude would yield breathless coverage and become a major story of the year. And to be clear, we understand there are other pressing matters that we need our leaders to put country over party to solve: foreign interference in our elections, bolstering secure and modern election infrastructure, and the president’s contempt for our democratic norms. It’s in the last category where this latest scandal fits.

One purpose of our campaign-finance laws is to provide transparency about the raising and spending of money to influence elections. Disclosure helps the public evaluate who may be beholden to whom, make informed choices on Election Day, and hold elected leaders accountable when they take office. The Supreme Court has repeatedly endorsed this principle as consistent with the First Amendment — including in >Citizens United v. FEC.

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There is plenty of smoke to the Stormy Daniels fiasco. The timing of the payment, the nature of Trump’s relationship to his attorney who set up the Delaware LLC to hide the source of the money, and the contemporaneous tumult in the campaign because of the Access Hollywood video. Our complaints will now trigger a process for the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice to decide whether there is reason to believe that our campaign-finance laws might have been violated — and, if so, to investigate and make a final determination. 

We have confidence that these two agencies will do their jobs. Our campaign-finance laws are supposed to protect the integrity of our democracy, a democracy in which everyone’s voices, not just those of the wealthy few, are heard by our elected officials. Everyone has a right to know who is trying to influence our votes and our views. And everyone — including the president of the United States — plays by the same fair, commonsense rules. 

Stephen Spaulding is chief of strategy & external affairs at Common Cause and was special counsel to former commissioner Ann M. Ravel of the Federal Election Commission; Paul S. Ryan is vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause. Follow them on Twitter: @SteveESpaulding and @ThePaulSRyan 

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @USATOpinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

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