Harvey Weinstein’s tainted campaign cash is good for something.
For Sen. Al Franken, donations from the recently disgraced Hollywood producer were a political liability. For the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, where Franken’s campaign redirected the money, that means hot food and warm socks for women in need in Minneapolis.
News broke earlier this month of multiple sexual harassment and assault allegations against Weinstein, a prominent figure in the film industry, and within hours, a clutch of high-profile Democrats who had gotten political donations from him over the years were looking to offload them. For Franken, it meant finding a recipient for $20,000 given to his campaigns and political action committee.
“I didn’t hesitate,” Patina Park, executive director of the resource center, said with a laugh. The check was quickly deposited, and even more quickly spent on services and outreach for Indian women and families. The center’s services range from educational and cultural programs to mental health services and sexual abuse prevention, and its reach is always wider than its budget and available grants.
“The $20,000 is essentially going into our general operating fund. A lot of our programs aren’t fully funded, so we always have gaps that this money will help,” Park said. She said it could buy a meal and bus ticket home for a woman and her children fleeing an abusive relationship, or fill packages for homeless addicts or prostitutes facing a cold winter on Lake Street.
“The money will go for socks and clean underwear and granola bars — things we take for granted in our day-to-day lives, but [mean a great deal to] individuals really struggling and living on the streets,” Park said. “Anything we can do to help them come this way and hopefully receive some of our services, that money will go toward.”
For politicians who find themselves saddled with perfectly good money from perfectly awful people, regifting is often the solution.
There’s no law requiring a campaign to return a contribution from someone who is accused of bad or illegal behavior. But the political consequences for campaigns that don’t cut ties with a donor who might be a crook or a sexual predator or a white supremacist can be harsher than anything the law could dish out.
“If Democrats and the [Democratic National Committee] truly stand up for women like they say they do, then returning this dirty money should be a no-brainer,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement in early October, as more and more women stepped forward with allegations that Weinstein had accosted or even raped them.
Few campaigns are equipped to properly screen all of the donations flowing into their coffers, and few campaigns avoid the awkward ritual of returning or giving away money from donors who broke campaign laws, changed their minds, or became toxic by association.
After the 2016 elections, candidates and their committees returned $100 million worth of donations, for a dizzying host of reasons, the Center for Responsive Politics found.
Only a few returned donations make headlines. Republicans returned or donated thousands of dollars worth of contributions from white supremacist Earl Holt III after his teachings were linked to the 2015 Charleston church shooting. The same year, Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar returned a $10,000 donation from New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez after he was indicted on corruption charges.
The Minnesota GOP, the Minnesota DFL and politicians from both parties had to give back half a million dollars in political contributions from convicted fraudster Tom Petters and his associates as courts worked to recover the fortunes skimmed away by his Ponzi scheme. Earlier this year, the Franken campaign turned $41,000 over to the U.S. Treasury to offset campaign contributions from a Boston law firm accused of improperly reimbursing staffers who made political donations.
Weinstein money is widely being redirected. The DNC said it would donate the $30,000 it received from Weinstein in the last election cycle to groups that encourage women to run for public office.
As for others, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, for example, donated to women’s charities. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts donated to a Boston shelter for battered women. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York donated to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, which advocates on behalf of victims of sexual assault.
For more information about the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, visit www.miwrc.org.
Jennifer Brooks • 202-662-7452