John Kerry's presidential campaign is returning a $2,000 contribution made by Chun Jae-yong, son of former South Korean President Chun Dooh-hwan. The campaign is refunding the money because Korean authorities have charged the junior Chun with evading taxes on his $14 million inheritance. Sticky ethical situations notwithstanding, can foreign nationals make contributions to political campaigns in the United States?
Unless a foreign national is a legal permanent resident of the United States, he or she is strictly barred from funneling money to political candidates on the federal, state, and even local levels. The prohibition originated in 1966, when the Foreign Agents Registration Act was amended to forbid "any contribution of money or other thing of value" to a political campaign by an agent of a foreign nation. In 1974, the Federal Election Commission was made responsible for enforcing and interpreting the ban when the no-foreigners rule was added to the Federal Election Campaign Act. The language in the act made clear that the ban applied to all foreign nationals, not just lobbyists or government representatives.
The wording of the prohibition, in Title 2 of the U.S. Code, was expanded slightly by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, better known as McCain-Feingold. The section on contributions and donations by foreign nationals clearly bars them from making, or even promising to make, any sort of contribution or donation—whether monetary or in kind—to a candidate or a political committee. Also forbidden is the solicitation or acceptance of such donations. (The older, less verbose prohibition didn't specifically mention political committees.)
Unlike most federal laws, the contributions ban applies to every level of government. Earlier this month, for example, the FEC fined a Venezuelan man for contributing $2,500 to the 2000 campaign of Alex Penelas, the executive mayor of Miami-Dade County and a candidate for the Senate seat vacated by Bob Graham. (Penelas was unaware of the contribution and did not know the donor.)
Foreign nationals who are permanent residents of the United States, however, are exempt from the contributions ban: The FEC refers to this as the "green card exception." As such, Chun's donation to Kerry wasn't illegal, at least if the AP's account is accurate. According to the article, before making the contribution, Chun showed his Social Security card to a co-worker as proof that he was a permanent resident of the United States.
Even without a green card, foreign nationals are free to stuff envelopes, knock on doors, or otherwise volunteer on a campaign, provided they receive absolutely no pay for their work. They may not, however, donate services that are connected with fund raising. For example, an artist who is a foreign national cannot offer to create paintings for a campaign, if those paintings will later be used to bolster the candidate's fund-raising activities. The FEC is the final arbiter when it comes to debates on whether a foreign national has crossed the fine line between volunteer and fund-raiser.
Explainer thanks Paul E. Sullivan of Sullivan & Associates and Celia Wexler of Common Cause.