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Graham broke Senate rules by soliciting campaign funds in federal building, expert says

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COLUMBIA — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham used an on-camera interview after the Supreme Court confirmation hearings Wednesday to solicit contributions for his reelection campaign, a move that a congressional legal expert said is a clear violation of Senate ethics rules.

Two formal complaints were filed with the Senate Ethics Committee about the issue Thursday, one by the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center and another by the South Carolina Democratic Party.

Shortly after Graham finished chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, he spoke to reporters outside the hearing room, which was in a federal office building.

Asked how much he could attribute the Supreme Court issue to his recent campaign fundraising haul, which set an all-time record for Senate Republicans at $28 million, Graham said he thinks South Carolina voters are excited about Barrett and then directed viewers to his campaign website.

"I don’t know how much it affected fundraising today, but if you want to help me close the gap — — a little bit goes a long way," said Graham, R-S.C, who is locked in a highly competitive race against well-funded Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison.

Kedric Payne, an expert at the Campaign Legal Center who previously served as deputy chief counsel of the Office of Congressional Ethics, said those comments violate Senate ethics rules, which prohibit members from soliciting campaign contributions in any federal building.

"It was shocking that he would make this solicitation because every member of Congress knows this rule," Payne said, noting that lawmakers regularly leave the U.S. Capitol complex when they need to make fundraising calls. "It is imperative that a member be held accountable for violating this fundamental rule."

Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop noted the senator was responding to reporters' questions about campaign fundraising and said he is "confident any reasonable person will see that any possible violation was unintentional and does not represent a pattern of behavior."

Still, even though a reporter asked Graham about his campaign fundraising, Payne said that would not excuse Graham using his answer to ask for donations.

"This solicitation is out of bounds no matter what question he was asked," Payne said.

In his time working at the Office of Congressional Ethics, Payne said the cases he investigated were typically complex and involved questions about whether the official was really on federal grounds or not. 

"You just don’t have this situation where someone is bold enough to solicit campaign contributions on national television while in the Senate," Payne said, adding that Graham’s case is "not complicated."

In addition to the Senate ethics rules, a legal statute also bars members of Congress from soliciting campaign contributions "while in any room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties."

But Payne said the ethics committee would be a more likely avenue for Graham to face a penalty because it moves faster than the legal process and the ethics rules are broader than the legal statute.

He suggested the ethics committee could issue a letter of reprimand for Graham — a punishment that he said the public may not view as harsh but would be considered "significant for a member."

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"If the Senate ethics committee does not hold this senator accountable, you will have a potential slippery slope of more violations," Payne said.

S.C. Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson said Graham should know better after spending 25 years in Congress.

"Sen. Graham’s behavior is completely unbecoming of a U.S. Senator," Robertson said. "The people of South Carolina deserve better than Lindsey Graham’s despicable violations of the law and Senate ethics rules."

Graham went on to congratulate Harrison on breaking the all-time record for any Senate candidate with a $57 million haul in the third quarter and said the race has taken on a "national profile."

"I think what's happened in my case is I stood up for (Supreme Court Justice Brett) Kavanaugh and that made some people pretty upset on the left, and I've been helping President Trump," Graham said. "But I trust the people of South Carolina to get it right. The state's not for sale. I feel really good about my campaign."

Harrison's third-quarter filing, posted Thursday, showed that in addition to raising $57 million from July through September, the candidate also spent $60 million over the same period and had less than $8 million left in the bank at the start of October.

The vast majority of his expenses went toward buying ads, with $50 million spent for that purpose. But he also gave more than $4 million to the S.C. Democratic Party, which he used to chair, allowing Democrats to spend more money on down-ballot races, too.

Graham announced his fundraising haul Wednesday but had not yet posted his filing by midday Thursday. The deadline is midnight.

Graham's campaign had been banking on the possibility that the Supreme Court hearings would help him in the final month of the race, reasoning that it would allow him to secure conservative-minded voters who want to see Barrett confirmed.

A pair of recent public polls have suggested Graham has recently jumped out to a lead in the race.

While earlier polls had found the race tied or neck-and-neck, a new poll out Thursday from the New York Times and Siena Research found Graham held a 6-point lead over Harrison, 46 percent to 40 percent, a similar result to another poll out earlier this week from Morning Consult.

But the polls also found some voters are still undecided or are considering voting for Constitution Party candidate Bill Bledsoe, who dropped out of the race and endorsed Graham this month but will still be at the top of the ballot.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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