Republican Brian Maryott, speaking at the U.S. Grant Hotel, was trailing Rep. Mike Levin in the 49th District.
Republican Brian Maryott, speaking at the U.S. Grant Hotel, lost in 2020 to Rep. Mike Levin in the 49th District. Photo by Chris Stone

Republican Brian Maryott, again challenging Rep. Mike Levin in the 49th Congressional District, is the target of a complaint to the Federal Election Commission over alleged use of Venmo payments to hide campaign spending.

End Citizens United complaint to FEC over Brian Maryott
End Citizens United complaint to FEC over Brian Maryott (PDF)

End Citizens United says that between January and November 2021, public Venmo records suggest Maryott and his campaign committee — with him as treasurer — made payments via that mobile app to campaign staffers.

But his federal disclosures “do not appear to reflect any of these transactions as in-kind contributions from Maryott to his campaign,” says the 36-page complaint filed last week.

Tiffany Muller, president of the watchdog group made up of “veteran Democratic operatives,” told Times of San Diego that Maryott “either thinks he’s above the law or he was hoping he wouldn’t get caught.”

Asked for comment, Muller added in a statement: “Federal law regarding disclosure of campaign expenditures is abundantly clear. Maryott knows he’s supposed to disclose any campaign-related expenses, but he thought he could skirt the law by making under-the-table payments through Venmo.”

She and her group say the FEC should immediately investigate the former San Juan Capistrano mayor’s campaign “and hold him accountable for trying to break the law.”

Monday night, the campaign for two-term Democratic incumbent Levin, 43, responded to an inquiry.

Levin aide Eric Mee said the alleged violations “reveal a stunning disregard for basic transparency and accountability rules by the Maryott campaign. Anyone who wishes to represent this district should show more respect to the voters by following simple FEC rules.”

More than 24 hours after being sent a request for comment, the Maryott campaign shared this statement Tuesday night:

Just as Brian always sought to take good care of his employees and clients as a businessman and financial planner, as a candidate he has always sought to do what’s right for the staff and volunteers who are working so hard in support of his campaign.

While this complaint was filed by a liberal activist group, it has brought to our attention the possibility that a handful of honest reporting mistakes regarding small amounts may have been made last year before the campaign was operating as a full-fledged operation.

Importantly, but not surprising, we’ve already identified many errors in this partisan complaint. This includes baseless speculation about Venmo exchanges between friends from a vacation trip completely unrelated to the campaign, and completely uninformed assumptions about the nature of most of what they listed in the complaint.

We have received no communication from the FEC, but we will work quickly and proactively to take the common step of amending our filing, if that turns out to be necessary. At this time we think it’s possible that as much as $1,500 – $2,300 may in fact require corrected filings.

A spokeswoman for the FEC said the agency, due to confidentiality rules, could only confirm receipt of a complaint — and not whether an investigation is launched until after the matter is resolved.

“Please note that the commissioners vote at many stages to advance the matter (or not) and ensure due process, and that the timeframe for resolving matters varies widely based on all sorts of considerations including how complicated the case may be, how great the caseload is at any time, and whether there is the necessary quorum of commissioners,” said Judith Ingram, the FEC rep.

The ECU complaint calls on the FEC to impose the maximum fine permitted by law — potentially tens of thousands of dollars.

“Unfortunately,” said ECU spokesman Bawadden Sayed, “the FEC is mired in gridlock and dysfunction so we don’t know exactly when they will act on the matter.”

FEC Dysfunction Detailed

In fact, Monday brought the latest explanation for that gridlock.

Under the headline “Why the FEC Is Ineffective,” the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center noted: “Under federal law, no more than three [of the six] commissioners can be affiliated with the same political party, and at least four commissioners must agree to take any substantive action — including opening an investigation, assessing a civil fine, approving an advisory opinion or writing new rules.”

Such rules were designed in the mid-1970s to prevent the major parties from turning the FEC into a partisan institution.

But “requiring a four-vote majority to take substantive action also means that three commissioners of the same party, acting in concert, can leave the agency in a state of deadlock, which is when the agency is blocked from doing its job,” said the essay by five former FEC staffers.

The complaint against Maryott names at least seven campaign aides as receiving money via the payment app Venmo. Among them were:

  • Megan House, former deputy campaign manager
  • Ryan Georgi, former operations manager and intern coordinator
  • Ricky Guthridge, former intern program coordinator
  • Zachary Davila, former senior campaign associate
  • Chris Crestik, former field coordinator
  • And Joshua Meyer, former senior aide

“In sum,” says the complaint, “Maryott appears to have made at least 33 payments on Venmo directly to the … employees for his campaign, but these payments do not appear to be included on the committee’s disclosure reports.”

Besides Maryott’s alleged payments via Venmo, the ECU complaint says that between January and November 2020, “individuals employed by or performing work for [Maryott’s campaign] also made payments through Venmo to each other for what appear to be campaign-related expenses.”

By June 30, Levin and Maryott, 59, had each spent about $2 million on their 2022 campaigns. (But Levin has outraised his GOP rival $3.46 million to $2.42 million.)

Levin defeated Maryott in the November 2020 election 53.1% to 46.9% and was far ahead in the June 2022 primary, 52.43% to Maryott’s 19.68%. End Citizens United endorses Levin and has given him at least $7,500 this cycle.

Venmo Payments Visible

Venmo payments are public by default — like other social media newsfeeds.

“Your family and friends can view your public transactions, but this means strangers can also see who you’re sending money to — and receiving payments from — which can make you vulnerable to fraud,” noted CNET in 2018. “Unless you change the settings [to private], people can see when you buy things.”

But not the actual prices.

Four years ago, according to CNET sister site ZDNet, 207 million transactions were already public and searchable on Venmo. Last month, reported that over 70 million people use Venmo, mostly in the United States, with $230 billion in total payment volume in 2021.

The complaint says Maryott described the staff payments on Venmo as “reimbursements,” “expenses,” “week,” “month” and “per diem,” among others. “These descriptions support a reasonable inference that the payments were related to his campaign.”

“Failing to disclose campaign-related payments on disclosure reports undermines transparency in the federal campaign process and prevents the Commission from fulfilling enforcement responsibilities,” the complaint went on. “The public deserves to know how the [Maryott campaign] is spending in this congressional race.”

ECU vs. Citizens United

End Citizens United is a political action committee working to reverse the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United, which led to unlimited spending for and against specific candidates. The nonprofit group also backs candidates advocating campaign spending reform.

Two years ago, ECU filed a complaint against Republican Darrell Issa, alleging he violated solicitation rules in promoting a Lakeside fundraiser.

The group said Issa broke the Federal Election Campaign Act, which bars federal candidates from raising “soft money” — funds outside of the federal contribution limits and source restrictions — in connection with an election.

But only months later, the FEC dismissed the allegations.

Three years ago, an FEC-initiated complaint looked into whether Maryott’s committee, when he was a 2018 candidate in the 49th District, failed to disclose $154,000 in additional disbursements in its 12-day pre-primary report.

The FEC reported that Maryott’s committee agreed to pay a $5,500 civil penalty and “implement a policy requiring that reports are reviewed by multiple individuals prior to filing and [that] bank reconciliations are reviewed by someone other than the treasurer of the committee on a quarterly basis.”

His committee also agreed to certify that a representative has taken part in an FEC conference, webinar or other program.

Earlier, in June 2018, Maryott’s campaign manager, Richard Frank, filed a complaint with the FEC, alleging that an unknown person disseminated an unauthorized mailer [“2018 CONGRESSIONAL VOTING GUIDE”] promoting Maryott over GOP rival Rocky Chavez in the primary.

FEC lawyers said: “We intend to ask the U.S. Postal Service to identify the holder of the bulk mail permit, and then ask the holder to provide the name of the person who was responsible for the mailers.”

But the sender of the bulk mail was never found. FEC spokeswoman Ingram said Tuesday that the commission did not authorize an investigation and closed the “matter under review” by a 4-0 vote in August 2019.

The latest ECU complaint includes screenshots of Maryott’s Venmo payments. But after August 2021, settings apparently were changed to private.

“Most of these transactions are no longer publicly available on the Venmo application,” the complaint says.

Updated at 8:58 p.m. Aug. 9, 2022