A year-end federal filing from former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows shows legal expenses that experts say indicate it is "highly likely" the North Carolina Republican is under scrutiny for campaign finance violations.
In October, the nonprofit government watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) requesting an investigation into Meadows, based on a Salon report that detailed a series of apparent violations of the prohibition on using campaign funds for personal expenses. Those payments covered gourmet cupcakes, grocery store purchases, a cell phone bill, posh meals and lodging at Donald Trump's Washington hotel, according to filings with the FEC. Meadows' campaign also spent thousands of dollars on "printed materials" at an upscale Washington-area custom jeweler on the day he left Congress for the White House. (The jewelry retailer has said it sells nothing that could be categorized that way.)
The year-end report filed over the weekend by Meadows' leadership PAC, Freedom First — itself an extension of the onetime North Carolina congressman's former campaign operation — shows only three expenses in the last month of the year, one of them an anomalous $6,339 payment to the law firm Foley & Lardner, designated for "PAC legal services."
The only two other expenses listed in the filing went to Costco and Walmart, both for around $250 on Dec. 7, designated as "food/beverage for PAC reception honoring Secret Service members." According to FEC filings, no other federal political committee of any kind has ever designated an expense for the Secret Service. Before leaving office, Trump reportedly issued an unprecedented directive that Meadows receive Secret Service protection for an additional six months.
A campaign finance attorney, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss potential legal proceedings, told Salon that the seriousness of the charges facing Meadows, together with the timing of the legal expense, indicate that it's "highly likely" the FEC has launched an inquiry.
"The CREW complaint was filed at the end of October, and the FEC gives the persons or entities named in a complaint 15 days to file a response," the attorney said. "The FEC frequently grants extensions to that deadline if they are requested. It is highly likely that these legal fees were incurred in November to prepare a response to the CREW complaint, or at least begin the process of preparing one."
(Salon reported last week that Meadows liquidated as much as $200,000 in stocks in November.)
Another campaign finance and FEC enforcement expert, also speaking on background, agreed that the filing suggested the first stages of an investigation: "Looks like it, but with Meadows, there's a lot of things he could need a lawyer for."
Similar charges have landed other politicians in prison. Former Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, was sentenced for using his campaign account for personal expenses, including at hotels and restaurants — including one of the venues Meadows routinely expensed, the Capitol Hill Club, a favored hangout of House Republicans that is just around the corner from Republican National Committee headquarters. Meadows made a $1,100 purchase there on Jan. 13, 2020, the same day Hunter resigned from the House for his numerous campaign finance violations.
(Hunter's campaign spent more than $100,000 at the Capitol Hill Club, stretching back to 2008. The Meadows campaign expensed about half that amount at the club across 109 expenditures beginning in 2012, though most of that spending — more than $37,000 — came in the four years after Trump's election.)
Meadows announced in late December of 2019 that he would not seek re-election in North Carolina's 11th congressional district, but his campaign went on to spend more than $60,000 before he officially converted it into the Freedom First leadership PAC in July. In that same timeframe, filings show, the campaign only raised $300. Salon also reported that a number of Meadows' campaign expenses in that time appear related to his effort to get Lynda Bennett, a friend of his wife, elected to his old congressional seat. Bennett lost to Madison Cawthorn in the 2020 Republican primary, and Cawthorn — himself a onetime Meadows protégé — is now serving in Congress.
Freedom First went on to spend about $14,000 between July and Oct. 21, the date of Salon's report, federal filings show — including on cupcakes, Costco, a cell phone and rooms at Trump's hotel. Despite those expenses, Freedom First reported raising no money at all in that time period, which is highly unusual for any PAC, especially in an election year. Further, federal records show that Freedom First never disbursed any money to Republican candidates until Oct. 23, two days after Salon's report. On that day, the PAC gave $1,000 to 19 Republican candidates, including Cawthorn.
While the FEC would enforce any possible civil actions that may arise from CREW's complaint, the charges against Meadows could veer into criminal territory, attracting attention from the Department of Justice, as was the case for Hunter. In December, Trump pardoned Hunter, one of his earliest supporters in Congress, just before his scheduled 11-month prison stint. Meadows has not been accused of any crime to date, but was reportedly also considered for a pardon list. In addition to possible campaign finance violations, he could face legal jeopardy for his role in a now-infamous phone call during which Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" votes for him, an apparent solicitation of election fraud.
Also on that call was Cleta Mitchell, a veteran government law attorney who has primarily worked for Republican clients — including Meadows. On Jan. 4, CREW filed a criminal complaint against Trump that referred both Meadows and Mitchell to the Justice Department: "While this complaint focuses on President Trump's conduct, we believe that your offices should also review the conduct of Mr. Meadows, Ms. Mitchell, and any other individuals who aided the President's likely illegal activity."
When the tape of the Raffensperger call became public, Mitchell resigned from her senior position at Foley & Lardner, the same law firm to which Meadows' PAC paid more than $6,300 in December. It is unclear whether Mitchell or the firm still represents Meadows or the Freedom First PAC.
Neither Meadows, Mitchell nor Foley & Lardner replied to Salon's requests for comment.