Andrew Yang to give $1,000 a month to 10 families as part of his campaign

PHOTO: Entrepreneur Andrew Yang reacts during the 2020 Democratic presidential debate in Houston, Sept. 12, 2019.PlayMike Blake/Reuters
WATCH Andrew Yang says campaign will give 10 people $1,000 a month for a year

Andrew Yang kicked off the latest Democratic debate by promising to give away more money.

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During his opening remarks onstage at Thursday's debate, the Democratic presidential candidate announced that his campaign would give an additional 10 families $1,000 per month for a year for a case study on his signature universal basic income policy.

"It's time to trust ourselves more than our politicians. That's why I'm going to do something unprecedented tonight. My campaign will now give a freedom dividend of $1,000 a month for an entire year to 10 American families, someone watching this at home right now," Yang said. "If you believe that you can solve your own problems better than any politician, go to yang2020.com and tell us how $1,000 a month will help you do just that. This is how we will get our country working for us again, the American people."

Yang's campaign manager, Zach Graumann, confirmed the plan to ABC News shortly before the debate began: "The campaign is excited to work together with our supporters to help create more stories about what the Freedom Dividends means for American families. It will enable and empower citizens to pay their bills, switch jobs, take care of loved ones, and plan for the future."

Some campaign finance experts have said the monthly gifts, dubbed "Freedom Dividends," walk a very fine line in terms of campaign finance laws that prohibit the personal use of campaign funds.

Former FEC lawyer and Senior Director of Campaign Legal Center Adav Noti told ABC News that Yang's plan appears to violate the federal law on its face, though it's hard to say with 100% certainty without additional details of the payouts.

PHOTO: Entrepreneur Andrew Yang reacts during the 2020 Democratic presidential debate in Houston, Sept. 12, 2019. Mike Blake/Reuters
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang reacts during the 2020 Democratic presidential debate in Houston, Sept. 12, 2019.

"The only way I can think of even potentially justifying it would be if the campaign were to condition the payments on recipients giving their time to the campaign -- essentially as payment for services," Noti said. "Even then, to be legal, the payments would have to be at the fair market value of the services provided in exchange. Otherwise, the campaign funds are just going to pay the day-to-day expenses of the recipients, which is exactly what the law prohibits. The personal use ban is an important anti-corruption and donor-protection law, and the Yang campaign shouldn’t be violating it so cavalierly."

Another election lawyer, Paul S. Ryan, with Common Cause, voiced similar concerns, saying without any services from the recipients for the campaign, this could trigger the personal use ban.

One exception on the ban on personal use, Ryan said, is if the campaign funds are used to "purchase gifts or make donations of nominal value to persons other than the members of the candidate’s family." But he added that Yang's $1,000 monthly payment for a year is not likely to be considered of "nominal value."

Yang's campaign said in a statement the campaign consulted with its counsel, and that Freedom Dividends are "fully compliant with all FEC regulations."

Yang's showcase of his main campaign platform would consolidate some welfare programs and ultimately provide each American adult 18 or older with a $1,000 monthly check from the government. He cited Alaska as a potential model for the proposal. There, citizens receive an annual check from the state that's supported by oil and mineral leases in the state.

As the campaign notes, there are already the three dividend recipients: Jodie Fassi of New Hampshire, Malorie Shannon of Florida, and Kyle Christensen of Iowa.

Beyond the legal questions, the announcement did have one immediate impact: surprise.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg was the next candidate to speak immediately after Yang, and he couldn't help by react.

"It's original," Buttigieg said. "I'll give you that."

ABC News' Meghan Keneally contributed to this report.