09/30/2011 01:45 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2011

Was Mitt Romney On The Receiving End Of A Potentially Illegal Donation?

WASHINGTON -- Was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on the receiving end of a potentially illegal campaign donation?

That question is being bandied about by Democrats and good government groups upon close reading of an upcoming New York Times magazine story on the political machinations and home-state standing of Romney's top competitor, Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The piece, which has been online for a few days and is set to run in print this Sunday, ends with an anonymous "influential Houston Republican," explaining that he "had someone else pay" for him to attend a Romney fundraiser out of fear of retribution should Perry's people find out.

The ethics of the anecdote depend entirely on who actually paid for the ticket. If the "influential Houston Republican" had someone else both give him or her the ticket and cover its cost, it's not a problem. But if he or she reimbursed that person for the ticket, it is. That Houston Republican would, in that case, be donating to the Romney campaign without revealing himself or herself as the source of the donation.

"It is a little fuzzy," said Fred Wertheimer, the founder and president of the good government group Democracy 21. "What may have happened is that the other person paid for it and the other person's name showed up on the list of donors. And if he gives him the ticket, then that's legal. But if he gave him the money to pay for [the ticket], then he is masking his name. You have to know whose money this is in order to know."

So did the "influential Houston Republican" have someone simply conduct the act of paying for the ticket, or did he or she have that person actually pay for it?

The author of the article, Mimi Swartz, told The Huffington Post she wasn't sure. She suspected that her source did reimburse the cost, but when she tried to follow up, she got no response. The Romney campaign, for its part, appears to be off the hook here. As long as the person who made the contribution is the person who shows up on the FEC report, anyone can attend the fundraiser. In other words, making a contribution gets you a ticket but it doesn't restrict what you do with -- or whom you give -- that ticket.

Still, The New York Times magazine anecdote is a useful one to highlight, not just because it underscores the culture of political fear that exists in Texas, but also because it illustrates a recurring shortcoming in campaign finance disclosure. Usually, the examples are more blatant and egregious, like when pyramid investor Norman Hsu illegally bundled and reimbursed his campaign donations to, among others, Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. But they happen nearly every election.

"It is one of the more common serious violations of the campaign finance law. It comes up every election cycle," said Larry Noble, an authority on campaign finance law who works for the firm Skadden Arps. "Every election cycle we have these. Often a CEO will give his employees money and say, 'make a contribution.'"

Earlier on HuffPost: