FEC’s Direction in Doubt After Ravel’s Departure

By Kenneth P. Doyle

Ann Ravel, who came to the Federal Election Commission to press for more disclosure of campaign money but grew increasingly frustrated, will leave the FEC March 1, she said in a letter to President Donald Trump.

The move gives Trump a chance to reshape the FEC, though it remains unclear if this will be a priority for a new administration that has struggled on other fronts. Trump’s nomination of federal appeals court Judge Neil Gorsuch for a vacant seat on the Supreme Court, who awaits a Senate confirmation vote, is more likely to shape future developments in campaign finance, as well as other areas of the law, experts said.

Ravel, a Democrat who came to Washington after leading California’s state campaign finance agency, told Bloomberg BNA in a phone interview that she arrived at the FEC with hopes of strengthening disclosure of what she calls “dark money” pouring into federal campaigns. She was soon frustrated, however, by opposition from her Republican colleagues.

Feud With FEC Republicans

Ravel has feuded increasingly with Republican commissioners on the FEC, who’ve accused her of unfair criticism and of straying outside what they view as the limited mandate of the agency. Ravel’s Feb. 19 resignation letter to Trump gave no specific reason for her departure, but she has expressed deepening frustration for years with partisan deadlocks among the six commissioners.

Ravel has received support from many outside the FEC calling for stronger campaign finance regulation, including stricter disclosure laws. The Council of Governmental Ethics Laws, an international association of ethics agency officials and other experts, gave her its annual COGEL award last December in recognition of Ravel’s efforts at the FEC.

Ravel told Bloomberg BNA that, after leaving the FEC, she will teach law at the University of California, Berkeley, and expects to remain active on campaign finance and what she calls “civic engagement” issues through work with nonprofit policy groups.

Partisan Impasse Remains

The FEC commissioners are evenly divided among three recommended by Democrats and three Republicans. They have frequently disagreed about key legal and enforcement issues, depriving the FEC of the four-vote majority needed for action.

The impasse between the FEC’s Democratic and Republican commissioners, primarily over whether to strengthen campaign finance disclosure regulations and enforcement, predated Ravel’s appointment to the FEC in 2013 and will remain as she departs.

Democrats on the FEC and in Congress have for more than seven years pressed for additional disclosure, especially regarding sources of campaign money funneled through non-disclosing, politically active nonprofit groups, which mainly have supported Republican candidates. The push for additional disclosure came after the Supreme Court rolled back restrictions on corporate campaign spending in the 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC.

Soon after arriving at the FEC, Ravel agreed with Republicans to strike from the FEC rulebook regulations deemed unconstitutional by the justices’ 5-4 majority opinion in Citizens United. The rules included a decades-old ban on corporate spending to influence federal elections. After Ravel’s cooperation, however, the FEC Republicans continued to resist Democratic calls to adopt new disclosure requirements.

Ravel was appointed to the FEC by President Barack Obama after chairing California’s state campaign finance agency, the Fair Political Practices Commission, during one of its most eventful periods. Shortly before she came to the FEC, Ravel’s state agency imposed a $1 million fine for violation of California’s campaign finance disclosure rules by political committees funding ads in a state ballot campaign.

‘I Was Naive.’

The FPPC said the PACs were being secretly funded by nonprofits linked to the network of conservative donors overseen by Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries Inc. The fine was paid as part of a settlement agreement, but the Kochs later denied having an interest in the state ballot campaign.

The controversial California enforcement action was broadly supported by the state agency Ravel headed, including Republicans on the FPPC. Ravel told Bloomberg BNA that, when she came to the FEC, she believed she could help foster similar bipartisan cooperation, but she was soon disillusioned.

“I admit when I came here [to the FEC], I was naive,” Ravel said in the phone interview Feb. 21.

In her first year at the FEC, Ravel said, she “crossed party lines” and voted with the three Republican FEC commissioners—Lee Goodman, Caroline Hunter and Matthew Petersen—to strike the corporate campaign spending rules overturned by Citizens United, as well as on nearly two dozen campaign finance enforcement cases.

“It didn’t take long to realize that wasn’t going to work,” Ravel said. She blamed her frustration on Republican colleagues, who came with “an ideological bent to ensure that the purposes of the agency were not fulfilled.”

Goodman Promised No DISCLOSE Act

The FEC Republicans have argued, on the other hand, that stronger disclosure requirements pushed by Ravel and other Democrats are not in the purview of the agency. Adjusting campaign finance policy in the wake of a major Supreme Court ruling, like Citizens United, is a job only Congress can do, the FEC Republicans have insisted.

Goodman, a Republican commissioner appointed at the same time as Ravel, ruled out any prospect that he would support strengthening disclosure rules without further congressional action. In an interview with Bloomberg BNA soon after his arrival at the FEC, Goodman said he would resist Democratic demands to “promulgate in new regulations the DISCLOSE Act, which failed to pass in Congress.”

He was referring to a legislative proposal backed by congressional Democrats to require increased disclosure of sources of campaign money, especially from nonprofits that don’t currently disclose their donors. The measure was blocked by a Republican Senate filibuster following the 2010 Citizens United ruling and has remained a bone of contention between the two parties ever since.

Report Faults Republicans

Ravel told Bloomberg BNA that she believed the FEC could work as currently structured—evenly divided between Democratic and Republican appointees in order to ensure fair application of the law. But, she said, such a structure “presupposes good faith to follow the law” among the commissioners.

In a report released as she announced her resignation, Ravel blamed the current Republican FEC commissioners, who she said voted together as a bloc 98 percent of the time, for the agency’s “dysfunction and deadlock.” The analysis she cited, conducted last year by NBC News, noted that the FEC commissioners holding Democratic seats have voted as a bloc 87 percent of the time since 2015.

Ravel’s report highlighted 18 specific enforcement cases dismissed on deadlocked, party-line votes of the FEC commissioners. The cases dealt with disclosure and reporting issues, as well as political coercion of employees, personal use of campaign funds and campaign money from foreign nationals.

Several of the cases involved conservative nonprofit groups, such as Crossroads GPS and others, which spent millions on political ads favoring Republican candidates but failed to disclose donors. Also listed were cases involving contributions to super PACs made by obscure limited liability companies, allegedly to obscure the true donors.

The FEC’s dismissals of some of these cases have been challenged in federal court, where they remain pending.

Also listed were cases of alleged political coercion of employees by a union and the coal company Murray Energy. In addition, Ravel highlighted a case of alleged foreign campaign money funneled into a local ballot campaign in California, as well as a case of alleged personal use of presidential campaign funds by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Republican Commissioners’ Statements

Separately, Republican FEC commissioners released “statements of reasons” explaining their votes to dismiss nearly a dozen different enforcement cases. Many of the cases had been closed for months or years, and it wasn’t immediately clear if the newly released explanations were related to Ravel’s report on enforcement cases or some other development.

The Republicans’ new statements on past enforcement cases were listed in the FEC’s latest weekly digest released Feb. 17.

Ravel’s report said the bloc of three Republican commissioners “routinely thwarts, obstructs, and delays action on the very campaign finance laws its members were appointed to administer.” The FEC Republicans’ “ideological opposition to campaign finance law [means] major violations are swept under the rug and the resulting dark money has left Americans uninformed about the sources of campaign spending,” Ravel said.

New Commissioners?

Ravel’s resignation letter to Trump called on the president to appoint new FEC commissioners “who will carry out the mandates of the law.” Trump could appoint someone to replace not only Ravel, whose term was set to expire at the end of April, but all of the other FEC commissioners, who currently serve in a “holdover” capacity following expiration of their regular terms.

Whether Trump would use new FEC appointments or other means to strengthen campaign finance laws remains in doubt, however. His rhetoric during the campaign often was critical of the influence of big donors, but as president, Trump has given no indication that he supports systemic changes.

In addition, Trump’s appointment of Donald McGahn, a former Republican FEC commissioner, as White House counsel and his nomination of Gorsuch for the Supreme Court are viewed as indicators that he is likely to pursue a deregulatory track on campaign finance issues.

Asked about whether she believed Trump would make FEC appointments to strengthen campaign finance regulation, Ravel said she was “always an optimist” but admitted she was skeptical that would happen. She noted in particular Trump’s appointment of McGahn, who frequently voted against stronger regulations and enforcement action, and battled with Democrats and career agency staff while at the FEC.

Some have suggested Trump could try to use Ravel’s departure from the FEC to push the agency to further deregulate money in politics. The president would be barred by law from adding another Republican commissioner to the three currently on the FEC, but he could attempt to circumvent Democrats’ recommendations to replace Ravel, such as by appointing a Libertarian Party member or a conservative independent.

FEC ‘Turbulent Place.’

Others suggested, however, Trump was unlikely to pick a fight with Democrats over an FEC appointment with so many other personnel and policy issues at stake early in his presidency.

Robert Lenhard, a former Democratic FEC commissioner now in private law practice at the firm Covington & Burling, suggested Trump should consider “the overall make-up of the FEC in selecting new commissioners” and try to reduce turmoil at the troubled agency.

“Over the last eight years, the FEC has been a turbulent place, with commissioners turning to talk radio, the blogosphere and comedy shows to take their disputes to the public,” Lenhard said in an analysis published on his firm’s website. “Discord at the top has led to a poisonous atmosphere within the building, and the plummeting of employee satisfaction to the lowest depths of any federal agency.”

“At the same time, the courts have re-written the scope of what can be regulated, and chastised the agency for not regulating enough,” Lenhard said. “The amount of money raised and spent has grown, and there is a sense that there is no sheriff in town.”

Lenhard said Trump has an opportunity “to work across the aisle to find commissioners who—even if they don’t agree on all questions of the law—can find an amicable way to provide clear guidance on what laws will be enforced and then do so.” Finding new commissioners to do that, however, would take time and focus—something that past administrations haven’t been willing to give to the FEC, he acknowledged.

“Events set in motion by the resignation of Commissioner Ravel will show us if it is different this time,” Lenhard said.

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

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.