ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A Republican political operative was sentenced to two years in prison Friday after becoming the first person convicted of illegally coordinating campaign contributions between a super PAC and a congressional campaign.
Tyler Harber, 34, of Alexandria apologized at his sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court. He said he knew what he was doing was wrong, but he did it anyway because of his desire to win elections and his belief that the law banning such coordination is routinely ignored in the political world.
The two-year term imposed by U.S. District Judge Liam O'Grady was closer to the 20-month sentence sought by the defense than the term of nearly four years sought by prosecutors.
Richard Pilger, director of the Justice Department's Election Crimes branch, said a stiff sentence was needed as a deterrent because the crime itself is so difficult to detect that fear of a lengthy prison sentence may be one of the only ways to keep political operatives in line.
"Coordination cases are virtually invisible until and unless an insider comes forward" with incriminating information, Pilger said.
Super PACs can solicit and spend unlimited amounts of money. They were born in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which lifted federal limits on contributions to and expenditures by independent political organizations. Those groups can spend as they see fit to try and sway voters, but cannot coordinate their spending with candidates.
In Harber's case, he was running the 2012 congressional campaign of Chris Perkins, who unsuccessfully tried to oust Democrat Gerry Connolly from his seat representing parts of northern Virginia.
While serving as campaign manager, Harber was also secretly running a Super PAC that spent $325,000 in attack ads against Connolly. Harber admitted that he coordinated the expenditures in violation of campaign finance laws to benefit his candidate.
Harber also admitted that he and his family used $138,000 of the money taken in by the PAC, nearly a quarter of its entire receipts, for personal use.
Asked by the judge why he did it, Harber said he "let my competitiveness allow me to cross the line."
"I got caught up in the dirty, political, idealistic crap. I got caught up in what politics has become," said Harber, who had been a frequent pundit on cable news shows. "It was so commonplace. I got arrogant because of the lack of prosecution of others who do it so readily."
In imposing his sentence, O'Grady said he hopes illegal coordination is "not as rampant as you believe. That would be very chaotic."
Defense lawyers had argued that a sentence of two years would be more in line with those imposed in other campaign finance cases, even if they did not involve the exact same type of violation.
Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said in a statement Friday that the Justice Department encourages whistleblowers to come forward and that Harber's sentence "should cause other political operatives to think twice about circumventing laws that promote transparency in federal elections."