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Cambridge Analytica's Legal Challenges


The British data mining firm Cambridge Analytica has suspended its CEO as investigations gear up in Great Britain and the United States. The firm allegedly obtained data from millions of Facebook users and used that data to help President Trump get elected in 2016. NPR's Peter Overby gives us a look at some of the potential legal problems here.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: In an undercover video by television 4 News (ph) in England, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix took credit for almost everything in the Trump campaign except the make America great again hats. He said his firm did all the data, research, analytics and targeting, the digital campaign and the television campaign, and, quote, "our data informed all the strategy." The firm did this in part with data mined from 50 million Facebook users. So here's a question.

BRETT KAPPEL: Did Cambridge Analytica give any of that information, any of that data to the Trump campaign? Did they actually give them the data?

OVERBY: Brett Kappel is a campaign finance lawyer in D.C. The question matters because Donald J. Trump For President paid Cambridge Analytica less than $6 million for the entire campaign. Estimates for the Facebook data run into the tens of millions. If it's really that much, then the campaign got an extremely expensive and highly illegal contribution from a corporation, and a foreign corporation at that. The FEC is timid about a lot of things, but Kappel notes this.

KAPPEL: The Federal Election Campaign Act's prohibition on foreign national contributions is the broadest prohibition in the entire statute.

OVERBY: Here's another issue. It's illegal for foreign nationals to hold decision-making positions in American elections. Remember the CEO's list of all the things Cambridge Analytica did? If any of it involved decision-making, such as going ahead with an ad buy, that could be a problem. It's worth noting that corporate and foreign contributions are two of the core prohibitions most likely to get the attention of Justice Department prosecutors.

Cambridge Analytica had a second client, a pro-Trump superPAC called Make America Number 1, also known as Stop Crooked Hillary PAC (ph), which indicates its mission in the general election campaign. Cambridge Analytica treated the campaign committee and the superPAC as one project. It's a violation of campaign finance law to coordinate messaging between a campaign and a superPAC, but the FEC says a company can serve both clients if it creates two teams and walls them off from each other. That's what Cambridge Analytica says it did, so this arrangement that seems obviously dicey probably isn't. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FLASHBULB'S "FOG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.