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  • FEC Record: Litigation

U.S. v. O'Donnell (Appeals court)

July 1, 2010

On June 14, 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed and remanded an earlier decision by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California which found that 2 U.S.C. § 441f, which states that “no person shall make a contribution in the name of another person,” applied only to direct contributions made under false names. The U.S. Court of Appeals found instead that the statute applies not only to so-called false name contributions, but also to indirect, straw donor contributions.


The case revolves around alleged political contributions from Pierce O’Donnell to the Edwards for President campaign in 2003. Mr. O’Donnell solicited 13 individuals to donate contributions to the campaign in their own names under the arrangement that he would either advance them the funds for the contributions or reimburse them at a later date. He was charged with contributing in the names of others, which is a violation of section 441f.


The case came down to whether § 441f applies only to direct, “false name” contributions or also to indirect contributions made through straw donors. False name contributions are those in which the actual contributor making the contribution does so directly but under either another individual’s name or a fictional name. Straw donor contributions are those in which the actual contributor making the contribution does so secretly and indirectly, through an undisclosed third party, either by advancing or reimbursing the third party the contribution funds.

The court analyzed who in a straw donor situation would be considered to be the actual contributor who actually made the contribution. It found that the straw donor who actually delivers the money to the committee is only acting as a mechanism, and that the original source of the contribution is the individual who actually made the contribution. Therefore, because O’Donnell was the original source of the contribution, he was the individual who made the contribution to the committee and his name should have been provided as the source.

The court clarified that in the context of reimbursements of straw donors, when the defendant and straw donor have a prior arrangement for the straw donor to make a contribution, coupled with a promise by the defendant to reimburse the straw donor at a later date, the violation of § 441f would occur the moment the committee receives the contribution from the intermediary.

The court determined that the purpose behind §441f is to “ensure the complete and accurate disclosure of the contributors who finance federal elections” and therefore, the statute applies to both indirect, straw donor contributions, as well as direct “false name” contributions. The appeals court reversed the district court’s dismissal of counts one and two—which alleged violations of §441f—and remanded the case to the district court for further action consistent with its decision.

U.S Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, 09-50296.

  • Author 
    • Katherine Wurzbach