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Will Jon Stewart go to jail for running Stephen Colbert's super PAC?

As the head of a super political-action committee supporting Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart is not allowed to 'coordinate' with Colbert. But the two are pushing the limits in the name of satire.

By Staff writer / January 18, 2012

Stephen Colbert (c.) and Jon Stewart (r.) hold hands during The Colbert Report, as Trevor Potter looks on Thursday in New York. During the episode, Colbert legally transferred his super political action committee to Stewart, his friend and Comedy Central cohort.

Kristopher Long/Comedy Central/AP

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Jon Stewart does not want to go to jail. This is understandable – the bagels in prison aren’t fresh, and Wi-Fi access is extremely limited.

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So – as he explained on Tuesday night’s show – he is worried about his new position as head of Stephen Colbert’s super political-action committee. He’s happy with the money, of course, and the power, and so on. He’s thinking of buying himself one of Elizabeth Taylor’s tiaras. (We’re not making this up.) But he heard Mitt Romney say on “Morning Joe” that he (Mitt) can’t coordinate with his own super PAC or he’ll go the “big house.”

“Which of your big houses do you go to? The beach house or the ski chalet?” asked Mr. Stewart, before mugging it up in mock horror at finally getting Mr. Romney’s joke.

“I don’t want to go to jail! I need guidance! Stephen!” said Stewart. Then Mr. Colbert himself walked out on stage and the audience exploded in glee.

Let’s back up for second here, shall we? For some time, Colbert has had a super PAC, a new kind of political money machine that’s allowed to accept unlimited amounts of money from private donors, and spend it on ads, or whatever, in support of its favorite candidates.

The only catch is that candidates themselves can’t run super PACs. If they did, donations would subject to low Federal Election Committee limits. And Colbert is now exploring the possibility of running for president of South Carolina. So he’s turned his super PAC over to Stewart. It’s now called the “Definitely not coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC.”

The point they’re making is that the line here is tissue-thin. The law says candidates cannot “coordinate” with super PACs. That means they cannot request, assent to, or suggest any super PAC activities.

But there is a loophole, or, as Colbert called it, a “loop-chasm.” A candidate can talk to his associated super PAC via the media. And the super PAC can listen, like everybody else.

“I can’t tell you [what to do]. But I can tell everyone through television,” said Colbert on Stewart’s Comedy Central Show. “And if you happen to be watching, I can’t prevent that.”

Stewart then played a clip of Newt Gingrich calling on his super PAC to scrub ads attacking Mitt Romney for possible inaccuracies.

Stewart and Colbert then talked to elections lawyer Trevor Potter – who is the attorney for both Colbert’s exploratory committee and the super PAC – through the same phone. Stewart said he’d bought air time in South Carolina, and so on, and Colbert just said he couldn’t coordinate, but smiled or frowned, depending on which city the ad time was in. Columbia, no. Charleston, yes!

Is this all legal, or are these comedians pushing the legal envelope and in fact risking jail time?

Nope, amazing as it sounds, they’re doing everything right. Election law expert Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine, on his blog linked to clips from the show, and posted but one additional word: “hilarious.”

So which of the GOP candidates stand to benefit most from super PAC money? So far the Romney-friendly “Restore Our Future” super PAC has spent about $7.8 million on ads and other pro-Romney activities, according to an analysis from the Center for Responsive Politics.

“That’s far more than any other super PAC involved in the 2012 GOP presidential primaries,” wrote analyst Michael Beckel on the group’s “Open Secrets” blog.

The pro-Gingrich “Winning Our Future” has spent about $4.2 million so far. Groups associated with the other candidates have all spent much less, according to CRP.

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