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A Washington-based watchdog group is alleging that a Belleville law firm used its secretaries and office staff as “straw men” to funnel illegally high campaign donations to Metro East congressional candidate C.J. Baricevic.

In a complaint filed Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust lays out an unusual contribution pattern by six low-level employees of the firm Keefe, Keefe & Unsell PC. The group claims that pattern is an attempt to circumvent federal campaign contribution limits.

FEC records show each employee gave the maximum allowable $2,700, on the same day in March, to Baricevic. The complaint alleges those circumstances, first identified in a Post-Dispatch investigation in May, indicate the law firm was reimbursing the employees to make the donations. If so, that would be a violation of federal election law, which makes it illegal to donate money to a candidate in someone else’s name.

A Baricevic spokesman derided the complaint as “a partisan attack.” Baricevic is a Democrat. FACT is a conservative-backed group that has generally targeted alleged ethics lapses among Democrats.

The complaint includes data showing that the job classifications of the donors — three secretaries, two legal assistants and a receptionist — average about $31,000 annually salary in Illinois, meaning each employee contributed almost 9 percent of her salary in making the donations.

“[T]he likelihood that these contributions were made by these employees, in these amounts, and on the same day without reimbursement or direction by the partners at (the law firm) defies logic,” says the complaint. “A more reasonable conclusion is that the partners or (law firm) reimbursed each of these employees for contributions made to … Baricevic, in violation of federal law.”

Officials at the law firm didn’t return a message seeking comment.

The complaint also is directed at Baricevic’s campaign, for allegedly accepting “excessive contributions they knew to be illegal.”

Baricevic spokesman Barzin Emami called FACT “a Republican dark-money group” and alleged the complaint is driven by Illinois and national Republicans backing incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro. Baricevic is challenging Bost in the Nov. 8 general election.

“This is a Republican-funded group that is making this baseless attack,” Emami said.

Matthew G. Whitaker, FACT’s executive director, acknowledged the complaint is based entirely on the timing and circumstances of the donations, with no evidence of reimbursements from the firm to its employees. He said gathering such evidence will ultimately require “somebody with more power than I have” to subpoena the firm’s records.

Such cases are rare but not unprecedented. In May, the father of U.S. Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., pleaded guilty to election fraud for getting friends and relatives to donate to his son’s campaign while reimbursing them. He is awaiting sentencing.

Kevin McDermott is a member of the Post-Dispatch Editorial Board.

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