The Justice Department warned World Wrestling Entertainment that it will not look kindly on the pro wrestling company distributing free merchandise near polling places in Connecticut — where its co-founder is on the ballot for U.S. Senator.
WWE “might be operating in ignorance of applicable federal criminal law” wrote Richard C. Pilger, Director of DOJ’s Election Crimes Branch in a letter (PDF) to the WWE. The letter explained that federal law — specifically section 1973i(c) of Title 42 of the United States Code — “makes it a federal offense to pay or offer to pay an individual a thing of value for voting.”
“Please note the Department’s understanding that this statute prohibits a person from providing a thing of value - such as clothing - in return for an individual’s participation in the voting process,” Pilger wrote.
Vince McMahon, the husband of Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon, didn’t take too kindly to the warning.
“Not so coincidentally after President Obama’s visit to Connecticut this past weekend and on the eve of the midterm elections, WWE is being threatened by the U.S. Department of Justice of the Obama Administration,” WWE said in a release.
“This is clearly heavy-handed bullying from big government and would appear to be desperate political activity in closely contested elections in Connecticut,” WWE CEO Vince McMahon said.
A Justice Department spokesperson told TPMMuckraker that the letter was not unusual.
“This is a standard letter that advises the possible illegality of certain activities,” a spokesperson for the Department of Justice told TPMMuckraker.
News of DOJ’s warning emerged because the WWE disclosed it had received the letter, not due to an announcement from the Justice Department. An announcement of the letter would likely have run afoul of department regulations limiting public statements about investigations that could have an impact on political campaigns
The WWE has said it will hand out gear at polling locations, but that WWE workers will stand at least 75 feet away from the voting location. A judge had ruled that voters were allowed to wear WWE gear when they go to vote. Vince McMahon had launched a defense of the company after it came under attack by his wife’s Democratic opponent Richard Blumenthal.
Late update: Vince McMahon has pulled the plug on the plan to giveaway WWE merchandise on Tuesday, citing the letter from the Justice Department, according to a report in the News-Times.