Steyer's cash for endorsements scheme legal, but optics aren't great

Billionaire Tom Steyer’s 2020 campaign came under fire on Thursday after it was revealed that at least one worker was offering donations to local politicians in Iowa in exchange for endorsements.

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The offers were made by a top Steyer aide, the Associated Press reported, citing multiple people with direct knowledge of the conversations.

So far, the publication noted, it is not clear whether any local campaigns accepted payments – which would not technically be illegal. Steyer, however, would be required to disclose them.

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While the public may not take too kindly to the report, Steyer’s campaign is far from the first to engage in such activities.

“Giving donations as a means to make new friends is the American way,” Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told FOX Business. “Buying your way in might look bad but it’s not illegal.”

A campaign spokesperson said Steyer has not made any individual contributions in Iowa this year, nor will he.

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“Our campaign policy is clear that we will not engage in this kind of activity, and anyone who does is not speaking for the campaign or does not know our policy,” the spokesperson said.

The campaign aide apologized for “any miscommunication.”

"As a former legislator, I know how tricky the endorsement process can be for folks in Iowa. It was never my intention to make my former colleagues uncomfortable,” he said.

As the only billionaire running for the Democratic Party’s nomination, the report could paint Steyer’s campaign in a particularly negative light as party frontrunners rail against the outsized influence of the wealthy and large corporations across all sectors of society – politics included.

Democratic strategist and syndicated radio host Christopher Hahn told FOX Business that this is the problem with “inexperienced billionaires running for office.”

“They feel they can buy anything,” Hahn said. “These types of transactions should have no place in our politics.”

Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who is also running in 2020, was quick to jump on the reports, accusing the hedge fund impresario of buying his way onto the debate stage and now buying endorsements.

“These repeated efforts to undermine our democratic process are unacceptable,” Bullock said in a statement. “Tom Steyer’s campaign is built on writing the biggest checks, not on building genuine grassroots support – and proves why it’s so important to get Big Money out of our elections.”

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The Associated Press reported in 2015 that a deputy campaign manager to Ron Paul during his 2012 campaign was convicted of making secret payments to an Iowa senator for an endorsement – to the tune of $73,000.

Steyer’s campaign made headlines earlier this week, over accusations it stole volunteer data from California Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign.

Steyer’s poll numbers are in the single digits.