What to Know About the Legalities of Wooing Delegates in a Contested Republican Convention

Can GOP candidates give gifts or horse-trade with delegates?

ByLAUREN PEARLE
April 6, 2016, 5:11 PM

— -- With a contested convention looking more likely, we asked top legal experts whether Republican candidates can give gifts or horse-trade with the delegates who may ultimately pick the nominee at this summer’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Candidates can pay a delegate’s convention expenses

Experts agree that candidates can pay a delegate’s convention expenses, including airfare, hotel, parties and meals. These can be lavish, since there are no specific rules limiting this. It’s unclear whether a spouse’s expenses can also be paid -- the delegate would have to claim their partner is “integral” to their delegate duties, experts said.

Candidates and delegates may be able to horse-trade -- to a point

“The candidates will have broad latitude to cut political deals with delegates,” said election law expert Michael Toner.

For example, delegates could be offered the opportunity to be campaign surrogates or help develop campaign platforms, Toner said. And candidates can probably offer delegates the vague possibility of “a role in the administration.” But it’s probably illegal to offer a paid federal job in exchange for votes (though it’s murky whether these federal laws apply to delegates).

Candidates probably can’t give money or tangible gifts to delegates

Giving money or tangible gifts in exchange for votes could violate state bribery laws, which vary across the country. And most if not all states prohibit “vote buying.” However, these laws are untested in this scenario, experts said, so it’s unclear if and how they apply.

There’s a “vast lack of authority on what the parameters are,” said election law expert Kenneth Gross. If a delegate happens to be a government official, accepting money could be “honest services fraud” under state and federal public corruption laws. For these delegates, a host of ethics rules might apply.

What Ohio state law says

Ohio state code does ban people during a convention from promising or giving any “money, office, position, place or employment, influence, or any other valuable consideration” to delegates at a convention. It’s a fourth-degree felony and, if the violator is a candidate, they would “forfeit the nomination he received.”

“If it were provable that the money would buy a vote or buy someone to refrain from voting, then it would seem to go against the statutory language,” said Tom Hodson, a visiting trial judge for the Ohio Supreme Court and a professor at Ohio University. "It would also be a question of a political will to charge under state law.”

Other rules

Delegates can’t receive any gifts from corporations, labor organizations, foreign nationals or businesses, or government contractors, according to Federal Election Commission rules. Individual delegates do not have to report gifts or money they receive, but they may have to report if they’re acting as a group to a delegate committee.

RNC has no rules on this (but could still write some)

Right now, the RNC has no rules on gift-giving or power brokering to delegates, but the Rules Committee could still write some.

Enforcement

The most likely enforcer would be state prosecutors, experts said. Federal prosecutors could also bring a case, but that’s highly unlikely, experts added. Also, anyone can file a civil claim with the Federal Election Commission, but the FEC can only impose fines (not reverse the election) and takes on average 15 months to resolve a claim.

ABC News' Ryan Struyk contributed to this report.

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