Democratic and Republican lawyers are scrambling this week to figure out how to contend with an unusual lawsuit filed by the Texas official tasked with recovering money spent by Allen Stanford, the alleged mastermind of an $8 billion Ponzi scheme.
More than $1.6 million from Stanford and his businesses went to fund Democratic and Republican Congressional campaigns between 2000 and 2008, and now the investors want the political parties to give that cash back, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.
The suit could be an important one to watch, because of a recent spate of alleged swindlers who also happen to be prolific political donors. Most notable was Florida lawyer Scott Rothstein, convicted last month in a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme. He and his law firm had parceled out more than $600,000 to politicians in the past five years.
The case against the party committees is also notable because it is built, in part, on an unusual rationale -- the contention that Stanford didn't actually get anything in return for his contributions. Under a quirk of the law, if the lawyers for the political parties can't show that he did receive some tangible benefit, they may have to come up with the money. And it's a point they'll have a hard time contesting, since they can't exactly argue that he bought influence with his money.
Ralph S. Janvey, the lawyer who filed the case in Dallas Tuesday, said he began requesting the money in writing a year ago and continued making written requests until earlier this month. The party committees "have ignored these requests, and, as a result, the Receiver has been forced to file this lawsuit seeking the return of the funds," Janvey wrote.
Overall, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee received the largest share of the Stanford money -- $950,500 – according to the Texas lawsuit. The National Republican Congressional Committee received $238,500, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee got $200,000, the Republican National Committee took in $128,500, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee received $83,345.
Lawyers and press aides for several of the political committees initially told ABC News they thought the case would be dismissed right away, and they saw little chance they would have to give the money back.
"The money's been spent. It's not going to be returned," one party official said, speaking on the condition he not be named because the litigation is pending.
But after spending more time reviewing the situation, several campaign finance lawyers told ABC News that this could actually be a far more tricky case than it initially seemed.
Under election laws, there are only a small handful of legal reasons a political committee would be forced to return contributions. They would have to refund money if it came from a corporation, came from a foreign source, or was funneled through an illegal straw donor arrangement, said Lawrence M. Noble, a former chief counsel to the Federal Election Commission.
"On the other hand, if the receiver has an independent legal basis for getting the money back, I don't think the party committees would be treated any differently than any other recipient of Stanford funds, whether it is a charity or a business," Noble said.
And that, potentially, is where the trouble starts for the Democratic and Republican committees, said Jan Baran, a Washington election lawyer.
There's a separate set of laws covering something called a "fraudulent conveyance," Baran said. Victims of swindling are entitled to recover any goods that were obtained with their swindled money. If the money was donated or given away rather than used to obtain something tangible, the victim can ask for the money back rather than tangible items. Any charity or other third party that has received money from a swindler may then be compelled to return that money to the person from whom it was originally obtained.
Hence one of the key arguments in Janvey's court filing -- that the political parties to which Stanford donated did not provide anything tangible in exchange for the allegedly swindled funds. They are more like charities that have been given swindled money and must return it.
Just because Janvey's legal argument "is unprecedented, that doesn't mean it will be unsuccessful," Trevor Potter, the campaign lawyer who represented Sen. John McCain during his presidential bid, said in an interview.
Lawyers for the five party committees involved in the case either declined to comment or did not respond to emails and phone calls. They can't argue that Stanford's donations bought him influence, but they are known to be checking if the money got him any tangible perks, like access to a concert or a sporting event or an exclusive gala at one of the party conventions.
Baran, who used to represent Republican congressional committees, said he suspects the party lawyers will try to reach a settlement with Janvey, rather than risk seeing this case resolved by a judge.
"I think Stanford's [alleged] victims are going to get some of the money, if not all of it," Baran said.
Stanford, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, is awaiting trial.