When a candidate is running for a seat in Congress they raise money to fund two different elections: first the primary and, if they make it, the general election.
A single campaign contributor can give a maximum donation of $2,700 toward each one of those elections. And those dollars need to be kept separate, meaning $2,700 given to support the general election in November can't be spent on fliers to voters ahead of the June 7 primary.
That's why state Sen. Isadore Hall (D-Compton) and his campaign for the 44th Congressional District have a problem.
His primary opponent Nanette Barragán, an attorney and former member of the Hermosa Beach City Council, has accused Hall of breaking election law by spending almost $100,000 of general election funds on the primary.
Hall's campaign reported having $39,182 in cash on hand at the end of the last reporting period in mid May, according to Federal Election Commission records. That means the campaign spent almost all of the $978,983 that it raised from individuals and political committees for both the primary and the general election.
The problem: Of the nearly $1 million raised, about $126,000 was earmarked specifically for the general election, according to FEC records compiled by the nonpartisan California Target Book, which tracks races around the state.
Hall's campaign admits spending the funds — on general election expenses.
The other problem: Hall's campaign only specified a single expense of $100 that went toward the general election on its last FEC report. And Hall aides are being mum when asked about what other general election expenses they have racked up so far.
"The classification of some general election expenses as primary expenses is a reporting error, and will be fixed on the next report," said Mac Zilber, a Hall campaign consultant.
Zilber declined to specify what those expenses were, how much they totaled, or how the errors were made. "We'll be reviewing the report to make sure it reflects that information," was all he would say.
It is illegal for a campaign to spend any general election money on expenses for the primary. But a campaign can spend dollars earmarked for the general election before the primary concludes as long as those dollars are spent on general election expenses.
One example: pre-buying television airtime for ads in October or paying for campaign office space rent for September in May, said Larry Noble, a former FEC general counsel who is now a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center. The options are "very limited," he said.
Joseph Birkenstock, a election law attorney with the firm Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock, who served as chief counsel for the Democratic National Committee, said it appears Hall's campaign did violate the law. But if it can amend and correct the expenditure reports, Hall could be in the clear.
"It is not a meaningful violation as long as they correct it and as long as those disbursements really were general election disbursements," Birkenstock said.
The Reports Analysis Division of the FEC can investigate the matter and send a letter to Hall's campaign, Birkenstock said.
He said the campaign will likely have to file an amended expenditure report to correct the accounting.
"That is doing a lot of work," he said.
An FEC spokeswoman said she could not comment on whether the commission was investigating Hall's reports.