02/11/2019 14:28 EST | Updated 02/11/2019 14:46 EST

Democratic Super PAC Says Howard Schultz Is Skirting Federal Election Law

A liberal super PAC has filed a complaint with the FEC alleging that Schultz might be “attempting to exploit” federal election law.

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American Bridge 21st Century argues in its complaint that Schultz is pushing the limits of an exemption in the Federal Election Campaign Act that allows potential candidates to “test the waters” before officially deciding to run for office.

A liberal super PAC is ramping up efforts to thwart former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s presidential campaign before it even starts, and is issuing a formal complaint to the Federal Election Commission alleging that Schultz might be “attempting to exploit” federal election law.

American Bridge 21st Century ― which primarily focuses on obtaining opposition research on Republicans ― argues in its complaint that Schultz is pushing the limits of an exemption in the Federal Election Campaign Act that allows potential candidates to “test the waters” before officially deciding to run for office, during which time they adhere to less stringent election rules. The complaint has been sent but not yet officially received by the FEC.

“Mr. Schultz cannot continue to skirt the Act’s disclosure requirements by publicly stating that he has not made a final decision regarding his candidacy if such a decision has already been made,” the complaint reads.

By law, any individual “testing the waters” is allowed to spend money “conducting polling, traveling around a district or state, and placing telephone calls to see if there is sufficient support for a candidacy.” But there are also certain activities that indicate an individual has moved beyond that phase, which American Bridge believes Schultz might have already done.

“The FEC should immediately investigate whether Howard Schultz has engaged in activities that went beyond merely ‘testing the waters’ for a presidential campaign and instead made expenditures to further his own candidacy for president,” the complaint states.

Such activities include “raising more money than what is reasonably needed,” “using general public political advertising to publicize their intention to campaign” and “conducting activities over a protracted period of time or shortly before the election.” Candidates need to register with the FEC in those cases if they “if they have raised or spent more than $5,000.”

In an emailed statement, a Schultz spokesperson dismissed the allegations.

“We are confident that our activities are fully compliant with the applicable rules,” the spokesperson said. “Furthermore, meritless complaints like this are commonly filed to harass political opponents and are indicative of the problems in Washington.”

Of particular concern to American Bridge is a Washington Post report from last month that stated Schultz has been “laying the groundwork for paid advertising that could debut in the next two months” during “a months-long effort to prepare an independent presidential campaign against the nation’s two-party political system.”

“By ‘laying the groundwork for paid advertising,’ Mr. Schultz has gone beyond the scope of the testing-the-water exemption and has become a candidate for federal office,” American Bridge contends.

American Bridge is additionally concerned by a link on Schultz’s website that suggests various ways people can “get involved,” including “volunteering,” “hosting an event” and “helping to spread the word,” though those concerns are not included in the complaint. Schultz is currently in the middle of a book tour, but Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for American Bridge, said those options are more in line with Schultz’s political aspirations.

“It’s laughable to pretend that some of those options are about a book tour and not about a campaign,” Bates said.

American Bridge, which was founded by David Brock of Media Matters for America and is financially supported by the likes of George Soros, describes itself as a “a progressive research and communications organization committed to holding Republicans accountable.” But it has made a special exception for the billionaire former Starbucks CEO ― a self-described former “lifelong Democrat” who is now “seriously” considering running for president “as a centrist independent, outside of the two-party system.”

Democrats fear Schultz could pull votes away from their candidate should he run, improving President Trump’s odds of re-election in 2020. Early polling has indicated he would pull more support from Democrats than Republicans.

Schultz himself has said that he will weigh such fears in his ultimate decision. “I can assure you, no one wants Donald Trump fired more than I,” he recently said during a speech at Purdue University. But American Bridge isn’t waiting to find out where Schultz will land. Already, it has compiled and shopped opposition research on Schultz related to his charitable foundation and Starbucks’ past settlements over “wage and compensation issues.”

Now, it is attempting to bring the FEC into the equation.

In its complaint, American Bridge cites the FEC’s previous determination that once a candidate “has moved beyond the deliberative process of deciding to become a candidate, and into the process of planning and scheduling public activities designed to heighten his political appeal to the electorate, then … the activity would cease to be within the exemption, and candidacy would arise.”

“Thus,” American Bridge contends, “even a candidate who is careful to craft his public comments to avoid publicly referring to himself as a candidate can trigger candidacy by making expenditures to further his candidacy once a private decision has been made.”

An FEC spokesperson said over email that the “Federal Election Campaign Act requires that any Commission action on an enforcement complaint be kept strictly confidential until the case is resolved.”  

Schultz stepped away from Starbucks last summer after more than three decades with the company. At the time, he told The New York Times that he had become “deeply concerned about our country — the growing division at home and our standing in the world.” Since then, he has compiled a formidable political team around him that includes former Barack Obama press secretary Bill Burton and former John McCain presidential campaign manager Steve Schmidt.