Watchdog Sues FEC Again for Not Enforcing Campaign Disclosures

By Kenneth P. Doyle

A watchdog group is suing the Federal Election Commission, charging it fails to enforce campaign finance disclosure laws, in the latest of nearly a dozen pending challenges to FEC complaint dismissals.

The suit, involving a conservative nonprofit called New Models, was filed Jan. 12 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

The case joins other lawsuits by CREW and other pro-disclosure groups frustrated by deadlocked FEC votes, which have resulted in dismissal of enforcement complaints. In one pending case, known as John Doe v. FEC, the tables are turned and unidentified donors are suing the FEC to keep their names secret following settlement of an enforcement matter.

In the latest lawsuit, CREW noted that FEC staff attorneys in the general counsel’s office recommended an investigation of New Models, which sponsored campaign ads helping Republican candidates but failed to disclose its donors. The FEC commissioners deadlocked 2-2 in a vote on whether to follow the staff recommendation.

Party-Line Split

Two commissioners holding Democrat seats—Steven Walther and Ellen Weintraub— voted to pursue enforcement, while two FEC Republicans—Lee Goodman and Caroline Hunter—voted to drop the case. One Democratic seat on the six-member FEC is vacant, and one FEC Republican, Matthew Petersen, recused himself and didn’t vote in the New Models case.

CREW charged that the FEC Republicans acted “contrary to law” by voting to dismiss a complaint alleging that New Models violated campaign finance law in 2012 by spending most of its money on campaigns but failing to report its contributors. The lawsuit noted that the FEC found New Models’ contributions to campaign spending efforts represented nearly 70 percent of the nonprofit’s 2012 spending.

Weintraub said in a statement that a recent court decision in a separate case mandated that a nonprofit can become a political action committee if it spends heavily on campaigns in a particular year.

Goodman and Hunter said in a separate statement that a group shouldn’t be considered a PAC unless its “major purpose” is to influence elections. The entire history of the group’s spending—not a single year—must be assessed to determine its purpose, they said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington, D.C. at kdoyle@bgov.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com

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