The Connecticut State Election Enforcement Commission (SEEC) is launching a formal investigation into whether the National Rifle Association violated the state’s campaign finance law. The probe comes just weeks after a group of young activists filed a complaint with the SEEC alleging that the gun group had directed thousands of dollars from its national political action committee to state-level campaigns. In certain states — Connecticut being one — such tactics are illegal.

The Trace’s Mike Spies reported on the Connecticut complaint in August. The unlikely muckraker spearheading the charges: Sam Bell, a Brown University doctoral student who just two years earlier dredged up nearly identical irregularities with the NRA’s political contributions to lawmakers in Rhode Island. That investigation resulted in a $63,000 fine for the gun group, and inspired Bell to follow up on the number of “fishy things” he discovered in the process of his work.

Here’s the story:

One of the complainants leveled nearly-identical accusations last year in the neighboring state of Rhode Island. In the summer of 2013, Sam Bell, a Brown University doctoral student in geology and the state coordinator of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, was searching for answers to what he deemed an illogical turn of events: Bell had been part of an effort to pass an assault weapons ban in his state, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, and it had failed spectacularly. The mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was still a recent memory, but local politicians could not be swayed. Bell, 26, heard the NRA had donated significant funds to state officials, and decided to investigate.

In Rhode Island, campaigns and state PACs are not required to report the sources of donations worth less than $100. The average campaign finance disclosure form therefore shows a mix of higher dollar donations, along with the names of their donors, and amounts below the $100 threshold with their provenance not listed. Bell noticed that the NRA’s state affiliate, which had given money to many elected officials, did not report the names of any of its donors at all. “That was a red flag,” he tells The Trace. The total reliance of anonymous donors, to Bell, suggest a stream of dollars coming from outside the state: By staying under the $100 mark, the NRA could obscure its use of outside money — cash from people who live elsewhere in the country — to influence elections and legislation in Rhode Island. It was also able to skirt the state’s campaign finance laws, under which, as with those in Connecticut, the practice is illegal.

Bell checked the campaign finance report of NRA’s federal political action committee, The NRA Political Victory Fund. Then he analyzed the report of its Rhode Island affiliate. He found that both committees had recorded donations of the same dollar amounts to the same candidates. But a look at the candidate’s report showed only one NRA-affiliated donation, which, according to Bell, indicated that the money had originated with the federal PAC and been transferred to the state organization before being given to the state campaigns. The discovery prompted Bell to file a complaint with the Rhode Island Board of Elections. In 2014, the regulatory body fined the gun lobbying group $63,000.

Bell was curious about whether the NRA had broken similar laws in other states. He enlisted a Brown undergrad, 20-year-old Duncan Weinstein, to help sift through documents. Together, they discovered what they believe is evidence that the NRA may have committed the same violation in Connecticut, and quickly moved to file a complaint.

In addition to Bell and Weinstein, the complaint was signed by Carlos Soto, whose sister Victoria was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting; Sarah Clements, a gun control advocate whose mother was a survivor of Sandy Hook; and Po Murray, a parent of four children who attended the school.

NRA Faces New Campaign Finance Complaint as Young Activists Continue to Follow the Money

[Photo: Flickr user Tax Credits]