People who make small contributions – the kind of donors candidates love to talk about at campaign rallies – have transformed the political landscape in 2020.

Small donors, those who give a candidate $ 200 or less, accounted for $ 1.8 billion in federal campaign contributions in the weeks leading up to last fall’s election, according to a joint analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute of Money in Politics.

That’s more than three times the amount they donated in the 2016 cycle, and it was 27% of the total collected from all sources. This does not include the flow of individual donations to parties and political action committees.

But how many of those backers did their due diligence before hitting the “donate” button, to make sure their hard-earned money was actually going towards legitimate campaign expenses?

After all, stories of politicians abusing campaign funds are legion, and almost as old as politics itself.

Former representative Duncan Hunter, R-California, is a prime example. The Marine Corps veteran was a prodigious fundraiser, but much of the money he raised was not used to advance the Conservative causes he campaigned for.

Instead, they went for everything from a lavish vacation to the grocery store. And it helped Hunter pay for several extramarital affairs.

In 2019, Hunter and his ex-wife Margaret each pleaded guilty to conspiring to steal more than $ 150,000 in campaign funds, in which prosecutors described as “a willful violation of the law for years”.

Representative Duncan Hunter leaves federal court in San Diego after pleading guilty to abuse of campaign funds, December 3, 2019.

Mike Blake | Reuters

“It would be so simple to say, in this case, that the victims were the campaign supporters who gave him the money expecting it to be used only for the campaign, but it wasn’t is only part of the story, ”said former Assistant US Attorney Phil Halpern. CNBC “American greed. “” The real victims include everyone he represents in San Diego and Riverside counties. “

Last December, just weeks before Hunter began serving an 11-month prison sentence, then-President Donald Trump pardoned the ex-MP and his wife. This allows Hunter to move on with his life, earn a Congressional pension, and even potentially run for office again. But there is no mechanism for donors who feel cheated to get some of their money back.

Beware of donors

Robert Maguire, research director at the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics watchdog group in Washington, said that while it is important for people to be able to participate in the political process and support whatever candidate or party they choose, the Hunter case should be an edifying tale.

“Some of these campaigns and committees have become very effective in making emotional appeals that apply to the pre-existing political beliefs of donors,” Maguire told “American Greed.” “Sometimes that can kind of bypass the part of your brain that says, ‘Wait, I should do some research before you give this money away.’

Federal campaign finance laws require detailed information from candidates and campaign committees about the money they raise and spend. All information is posted online at the Federal Election Commission website.

“The FEC data is generally pretty good,” Maguire said. “It can be a little intimidating at first to dig, but it contains a lot of useful information for donors who wish to hold the committees to which they report accountable.”

By clicking on “Campaign funding data” connect allows you to research not only who is contributing your candidate, but also where the campaign is spending the money.

Raw FEC data can be difficult to navigate, so you can also check, operated by the Center for Responsive Politics. The site synthesizes the data and adds a non-partisan context.

“Look for potentially selfish expenses, large restaurant payments, or travel expenses that don’t make sense,” Maguire said.

Such payments are not necessarily illegal as long as they are reported to the FEC. For example, a candidate can use campaign funds to make charitable donations as long as they do not personally benefit from them. The funds can be used to pay for gifts if the recipient is not an immediate family member of the candidate. The candidate can even receive a salary from his campaign committee under certain conditions.

But just because payments may technically be legal doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a close look at them.

“Ask questions about it,” Maguire said. “You can also report them to your local reporter in the candidate’s riding and just say, ‘Hey, I don’t know much about this. It sounds strange. “And that can help you get to the bottom of it.”

Play the system

The Hunters widened the loopholes in campaign finance law beyond their limits, even settling with credit cards that allowed them to dip into campaign funds at will, with virtually no questions asked.

In December 2010 alone, a month after Hunter was easily re-elected to a second term, FEC records indicate that nearly $ 2,500 in “travel, meals and lodging” was billed to the card. campaign credit.

“Almost instantly after I got that campaign credit card, it was a permit to steal,” said Halpern.

In other cases, a big red flag to look for is large payments to consulting companies. Almost all applicants use consultants, so the expense can be perfectly legitimate. But Maguire said consultant payments can also be a way to launder contributions for illegitimate use of a candidate or committee. He said that is another loophole in the law.

“Subcontractors do not have to be reported,” he said. “And so there could be these big lump sum payments to consulting companies, or even things that appear to be shell companies or something like that, that could be kind of a catch-all for a lot of expenses.”

If you see frequent payments to a consultant or other outside entity in the FEC data, also try researching that company or asking the campaign about it, Maguire said.

“Is it just a way for them to collect a bunch of money from people who care about a particular problem, and then put it back in their pockets? “

Similar rules apply if you are considering donating to a political party or political action committee. Maguire said a committee’s website alone can offer useful clues.

“Are there real human beings listed on the website? Is there contact information? Does it sound like an operation that actually employs people, and they come to work there every day?

If the website lists a physical address, google it to make sure it’s not just mail.

“If it appears like a UPS store, you know, that’s kind of a red flag,” Maguire said.

Be the watchdog

The FEC, an independent agency that was the centerpiece of post-Watergate campaign finance reforms in the 1970s, has never been able to live up to expectations.

“It’s an agency that’s just not functioning right now,” Maguire said.

In recent years, it has been hampered by a lack of funding. The agency notes in its latest request for a 7% budget increase in fiscal year 2022 that its Congress-allocated operating budget has remained essentially stable since 2016.

More importantly, the commission sometimes suffered from a lack of members. For much of the 2020 election campaign, the commission could not even meet as resignations and the lack of presidential nominations did not reach a quorum.

Even when full, the six-member commission – no more than three members can be from the same party – frequently finds itself in stalemate, unable to agree on coercive measures.

“Some of the bigger and bigger cases are simply blocked either by malfunction or by an inability to get the commissioners to agree on the facts,” said Maguire.

In many ways, this leaves it up to you as the donor to hold your candidate accountable.

“If you are thinking of donating to a campaign or a political committee, you should do your homework first,” Maguire said.

Find out how a congressman and his wife used campaign money to fund their lavish lifestyles – and how they fared. Watch a BRAND NEW episode of “American Greed,” Monday, June 14 at 10 p.m. ET / PT only on CNBC.

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