FEC Pursuing Major Republican-Linked Nonprofit

By Kenneth P. Doyle

Americans for Job Security (AJS), a Republican-leaning nonprofit group that has spent millions of dollars on political ads but never disclosed its donors, is facing enforcement action by the Federal Election Commission, a new FEC court filing indicated ( Citizens for Responsibilty and Ethics in Washington v. FEC, D.D.C. Civil No. 14-1419, memorandum filed 12/12/16).

The FEC told a federal district court in Washington, D.C., that it was taking action involving AJS but could not reveal details to the public because of confidentiality provisions in campaign finance law that cover ongoing FEC enforcement matters.

Meanwhile, AJS, which has been a force in federal and state elections for nearly two decades, appears to have gone dormant, reporting little of no activity in recent years after taking in more than $50 million in 2012. The nonprofit’s website no longer contains any information about AJS, and its leaders could not be reached for comment.

“FEC administrative enforcement matters, including remanded matters, are required ... to be kept confidential until the administrative process is complete,” FEC attorneys said in asking for a protective court order to keep its actions against AJS secret. “Because the FEC has not received AJS’s written consent waiving confidentiality, public disclosure of the status of the AJS matter would violate the [Federal Election Campaign] Act’s confidentiality provision.”

FEC officials said they could not comment beyond what was in the court filings.

Filing in CREW Lawsuit

The FEC’s new court filing came in a lawsuit filed by the liberal nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). The filing was redacted to conceal details of the agency’s actions involving AJS.

CREW agreed to a protective order to keep the information about enforcement action against AJS under wraps. A spokesman for the liberal group said it could not comment further.

CREW sued the FEC last year for failure to take enforcement action against AJS and another conservative nonprofit, American Action Network (AAN). The case is ongoing.

CREW contends the conservative groups are subject to FEC disclosure laws, including a requirement to reveal their funding sources. AJS and AAN haven’t registered with the FEC as political committees; instead, they’re organized under Section 501(c) of the tax code, which doesn’t required disclosure.

FEC Commissioners Deadlocked

An initial ruling in September by Judge Christopher R. Cooper of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, faulted the FEC for dismissing administrative complaints filed by CREW against AJS and AAN.

The complaints were dismissed due to deadlocked, party-line votes of the FEC commissioners. The three commissioners holding Democratic seats on the commission voted to follow staff recommendations and pursue enforcement action, while the FEC’s three Republican commissioners voted to drop the matters.

Cooper’s September ruling said it “blinks reality” for the Republican FEC commissioners to have concluded that many of the ads sponsored by the non-disclosing conservative groups weren’t meant to influence elections. He pointed to AAN-sponsored television ads, for example, that named Democratic House lawmakers and said a bill they voted for provided “free health care for illegal immigrants” and “Viagra for convicted sex offenders.” The ads ended with the call: “In November, fix the healthcare mess Congress made.”

Following the September ruling, the FEC commissioners considered the enforcement complaints again, but they again deadlocked on the complaint against AAN. FEC lawyers, in the latest court filing, said the FEC’s three Republican commissioners reviewed the scripts of television ads sponsored by AAN, most of which attacked Democratic congressional candidates, but still concluded that it wasn’t the “major purposes” of ad sponsor to defeat Democrats and elect Republicans.

Campaign finance law requires that only organizations with a major purpose of electing or defeating candidates must disclose their donors.

Republicans Saw Ads as Issue Ads

According to a “statement of reasons” issued by the Republican commissioners in October, they found that some of the AAN ads were meant to help defeat the Democrats. The Republicans concluded, however, that AAN didn’t sponsor enough of these ads, compared to other types of ads the group sponsored, to have campaigning as its major purpose. They accepted AAN’s contention that its ad campaign was aimed at promoting conservative positions on legislation, rather than influencing elections.

The latest FEC court filing noted CREW’s assertion that AAN targeted its ads at Democrats based on “their risk of electoral defeat” in “battleground races.” CREW said this targeting was incompatible with a conclusion that the ads’ were aimed solely to inform citizens or ask them to lobby their elected representatives.

However, the FEC filing said, AAN contended that it viewed its ads “issue advocacy” focused on items Congress was set to address. The filing said particular lawmakers may have been targeted in ads because those “in tight races” might be viewed as “as susceptible to constituent demands.”

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

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