WASHINGTON -- The federal case against one of President Bush's boosters in Ohio is a signal to political campaigns that they will suffer more grief than usual if their biggest fund-raisers run afoul of campaign finance laws.
Criminal provisions of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as McCain-Feingold, were invoked in the Oct. 27 arrest of coin dealer Tom Noe, a leading GOP fund-raiser in the Toledo area. The Justice Department says it's the largest case of its kind under the law.
Noe pleaded not guilty Oct. 31 in federal court in Toledo to charges that he illegally funneled $45,400 to the Bush reelection campaign. He had pledged to raise $50,000 for the campaign at an event in Columbus on Oct. 30, 2003, but, the indictment said, he paid friends to contribute money when funds fell short of the goal.
In the past, schemes to launder campaign money were considered civil cases for the Federal Election Commission to handle or had to be prosecuted criminally in a roundabout way, under the guise of causing false statements to be made to the government.
McCain-Feingold provides for criminal penalties for the fund-raiser. It might open the door wider for court action against campaigns themselves, said Larry Noble, a former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission.
''Criminally, I don't know if you can hold the campaign liable," said Noble, who runs the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. ''But civilly, if you can show the campaign had reckless disregard for the law, you could go after them for that."
More rules and regulations may be needed to protect politicians who cannot keep tabs on their massive armies of solicitors, said Dan Hoffheimer, a Democratic National Committee member who served as a lawyer for John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign in Ohio.
''Campaigns need to continue to take a more active role in supervising the activities of their people in the field, but the problem is, how do we create a clear set of written rules for doing that?" Hoffheimer said.
A veteran Democratic campaign chief, Craig Smith, said that fund-raising rules have always been imperfect -- and that they continue to be.
''Being sloppy has a damaging effect on campaigns, but because of the campaign finance laws in this country there always will be problems," said Smith, who ran the Democratic presidential campaigns of Al Gore and Joseph I. Lieberman. ''All you can do is make your best effort."
Legislators who pushed for new campaign-finance rules say they hope the Noe case forces politicians to review how they motivate supporters with honorary titles and rewards of ambassadorships and other political appointments.
''Let's hope so," said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who spearheaded the 2002 law with Senator Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin.
McCain-Feingold does not discourage such practices. It can make the campaigns more careful about who gets those titles.
''We have procedures in place to make sure we're following FEC regulations, and we've always done that," said Republican National Committee spokesman Aaron McLear. ''We're doing all we can do to ensure these donations are given appropriately."
Smith said his campaigns also gave out manuals detailing legal guidelines and directed those depositing donations to check for handwriting, sequential money orders, and other red flags.