The May 17 agreement between A360 Media LLC and the FEC characterized the $150,000 payment to model Karen McDougal as an illegal corporate campaign contribution. Federal law prohibits companies from making contributions to candidate committees.
A spokesman for A360 Media and David Pecker, the former chief executive of American Media Inc., didn’t have an immediate comment.
The agreement came nearly three years after American Media, the predecessor of A360 Media, admitted as part of an agreement with federal prosecutors that it paid Ms. McDougal “in cooperation, consultation, and concert with” one or more members of Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Mr. Pecker, then-CEO of American Media, told prosecutors in 2018 that he took Ms. McDougal’s story off the market at the behest of Mr. Trump, The Wall Street Journal previously reported. Mr. Pecker stepped down as CEO of American Media when it merged with Accelerate 360 LLC, a Georgia-based logistics and distribution business, last year.
Mr. Trump’s former attorney, said in a 2018 court hearing that he facilitated American Media’s payment to Ms. McDougal and personally made a hush-money payment to another woman, both at the direction of Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump has denied the affairs and involvement in the payments.
Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to tax and campaign-finance charges in connection with his role in the McDougal deal and his $130,000 hush-money payment to Stormy Daniels, a pornographic filmmaker and actress, who also alleged an affair with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Cohen has been serving the balance of his three-year prison sentence in home confinement.
FEC staff rejected arguments that American Media was exempt from investigation as a news organization. The FEC noted that American Media admitted as part of its federal non-prosecution agreement that the primary purpose of the payment to Ms. McDougal was to benefit Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign by concealing damaging information about his past.
“The press exemption is therefore inapplicable,” the FEC wrote in its factual and legal analysis of the case.
The commission also found reason to believe that the violation of federal law was willful, making it a more serious case.
The FEC investigation of American Media stemmed from a 2018 complaint filed by Common Cause, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group. The complaint also alleged violations by Mr. Trump and his campaign, but the FEC has taken no action against the former president.
In a decision made public in May, the FEC said it wouldn’t pursue a complaint by Common Cause against Mr. Trump in connection with Mr. Cohen’s $130,000 hush-money payment to Ms. Daniels days before the 2016 election.
The FEC’s nonpartisan staff recommended the commission find reason to believe that Mr. Trump violated campaign finance law. Commissioners Trey Trainor and Sean Cooksey, both Republicans, blocked that move, citing Mr. Cohen’s prosecution, the age of the allegations and the commission’s backlog of enforcement cases.
In response to the May decision, Mr. Trump praised the FEC for dropping what he called “the phony case against me.”
The FEC has 30 days to release documents showing how the commissioners voted in the complaint about the payment to Ms. McDougal.
A spokeswoman for the FEC declined to comment.
Paul S. Ryan,
vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, expressed frustration that Mr. Trump has faced no repercussions for the hush money paid on his behalf. “The mastermind of this illegal operation has not been punished, has not been held accountable,” he said.
Since at least August 2019, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has been investigating whether Mr. Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, broke any laws when it reimbursed Mr. Cohen for the payment he made to Ms. Daniels under the guise of a legal retainer, The Wall Street Journal previously reported.
The investigation by District Attorney
Cyrus Vance Jr.
has expanded to include financial dealings involving multiple Trump properties before Mr. Trump became president.
Manhattan prosecutors have convened a special grand jury, signaling the office is seeking to bring charges in the case, The Wall Street Journal reported last week, citing people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Trump, a Republican, has said the investigations by Mr. Vance and New York Attorney General Letitia James, both Democrats, are motivated by politics. “This is a continuation of the greatest Witch Hunt in American history,” said Mr. Trump in a statement last month.
Write to Joe Palazzolo at email@example.com
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