Stephen Colbert's Presidential Run May Be Illegal

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With its snack-food sponsorship, Democratic and Republican affiliations, and Sen. Larry Craig as a possible running mate, Stephen Colbert's run for the presidency is hardly serious business.

But the joke could be on Colbert if federal election officials decide his candidacy is for real.

If his campaign plays out the way he's indicated that it will, Comedy Central and Colbert's sponsor, Doritos, could be violating federal laws that bar corporations from backing political campaigns, election law experts say.

"How serious can you get about running as a joke?" said Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks campaign finances. "The Federal Election Commission doesn't have a great sense of humor."

Feds May Take Colbert Seriously

Federal law bars corporations from contributing to candidates, either through donations or in-kind contributions such as free use of goods or services.

Media organizations are permitted to feature presidential candidates in covering campaigns.

But no precedent exists for a television network promoting and fostering a candidacy of one of its own talk-show hosts, said Lawrence M. Noble, a former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission. And comedian Pat Paulsen's 1968 candidacy predated current campaign finance regulations.

"The real problem comes in the fact that he actually has his own show, talking about his campaign, paid for by a network," Noble said. "These are the kind of things on slow days you'd debate until the late afternoon at the FEC, but there are serious questions that come up. In theory, he could end up having some campaign finance problems."

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