FEC Drops Illegal Coordination Charges Against McGinty Campaign

By Kenneth P. Doyle

The Federal Election Commission has voted unanimously not to pursue allegations of illegal coordination against the campaign of Katie McGinty, the 2016 Democratic U.S. Senate nominee in Pennsylvania.

The FEC commissioners agreed to follow staff recommendations and find “no reason to believe” that McGinty’s campaign coordinated its activities with super political action committees and other outside campaign spending groups, according to documents released by the agency Dec. 16.

Outside groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts to influence a campaign but must remain legally independent of a candidates’ campaign committee. Individual contributions to federal candidates are limited to $2,700 per election.

Many Complaints, Few Actions

The FEC has received dozens of complaints of illegal coordination as outside campaign spending has skyrocketed since the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens Untied v. FEC, which rolled back restrictions on such spending. Only a few cases have been pursued by the agency; in the vast majority of cases, the FEC commissioners have voted to dismiss or deadlocked on what to do.

The McGinty case—designated Matter Under Review (MUR) 7029—stemmed from a complaint filed last spring by the Republican Party of Pennsylvania. The party complained that, during the Democratic Senate primary race, McGinty’s campaign illegally coordinated its activities with liberal groups, including EMILY’s List and the League of Conservation Voters (LCV).

McGinty won the primary against former Rep. Joe Sestak (D) and others but lost in the general election to incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.).

Most Expensive Senate Race

The Pennsylvania race became the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history. The total price tag was more than $177 million, including campaign money spent in both the primary and general election. That included nearly $125 million from outside groups not formally linked to the candidates.

The Pennsylvania GOP’s complaint to the FEC cited reported comments in Politico by McGinty’s campaign manager, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D). Rendell was quoted as saying that EMILY’S List would spend far more than $1 million on the Pennyslvania Senate primary race, and that outside groups, including LCV, would need to spend a total of at least $3.5 million on the primary.

The FEC complaint said Rendell’s comments about the spending plans of outside groups showed that the McGinty campaign was coordinating its activities with these groups. However, a report from the FEC general counsel’s office disagreed, concluding the complaint didn’t allege “specific acts” of coordination.

Rendell’s ‘Opinion of What Might Happen.’

The complaint charged that Rendell had private information about the outside spending groups’ plans, which it said must have been gained through coordination, the counsel’s report noted.

The allegation was denied by Rendell and others in the McGinty campaign, as well as the outside groups. “All deny engaging in actions that would meet” the FEC’s complex standards for illegal coordination, the FEC counsel’s report said.

The report added that Rendell’s comments to Politico “could reasonably be interpreted as his opinion of what might happen as the election unfolded, not a direct request” for support from these groups.

Murkowski, Other Cases Dropped

The FEC commissioners voted unanimously to drop other enforcement cases, according to newly released documents. Among them was a complaint (MUR 7032) that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) illegally used government funds to help her campaign.

A report from the FEC general counsel’s office noted that the complaint centered on field hearings in Alaska conducted by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and attended by Murkowski and several other senators. The hearings were part of official Senate duties and didn’t count as campaign contributions, the FEC report said.

Two other closed enforcement matters involving incumbent Republican House lawmakers included:

  •  A case (MUR 6909) alleging that the Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.) and his campaign accepted prohibited and excessive contributions and used contributions designated for the 2014 general election during the 2014 primary. The FEC said it “exercised its prosecutorial discretion and dismissed the matter in consideration of Commission priorities and the Committee’s timely corrective actions.”
  •  A case (MUR 7000) involving the campaign of Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) alleged failure to report in-kind campaign contributions in the form of copies of a book written by the candidate that were given away at campaign events. The FEC said it dismissed the matter based on prosecutorial discretion following the campaign committee’s promise to take remedial action.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

For More Information

More information and documents in closed FEC cases is available online at http://eqs.fec.gov/eqs/searcheqs

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