FEC News Roundup: February

As we move closer to the 2016 presidential election and various campaigns begin to heat up, the Federal Election Commission will become more active in regulating campaign finance activities. To help you stay on top of any changes, we'll be putting together a brief news roundup once per month.

This February, the FEC made the news a number of times. Earlier this month, it threw open its doors to hear from the public on a number of potential rules. The commission also looked at issues relating to campaigns from Hillary Clinton and John Boehner, as well as making the news for sending failure-to-file notices to a former congressman behind bars.

"An intern for Ron Paul cited the bible in his argument that money is not itself the issue, but rather the love of it is."

Public Hearing
Generally when the FEC holds hearings, the only people testifying are politically-oriented lawyers and other interested groups that have well formed arguments prepared. Earlier this month, the commission made history by allowing any member of the public to speak before the commissioners on issues of campaign finance, Chairwoman Ann Ravel explained in an op-ed piece for The Hill.

The hearing went as might have been expected – a handful of activists from both sides of the fence made their opinions known, but without effecting any significant changes in the way the chronically deadlocked commission plans to regulate its sphere of influence. Reporting on the hearing for the Washington Post, opinion writer Dana Milbank compared the event to a karaoke bar at which few witnesses could carry a tune. A speaker from the Tea Party Patriots expressed concern that the agency was attempting to regulate what he could buy at restaurants and how much water he could use in the shower. An intern for Ron Paul cited the bible in his argument that money is not itself the issue, but rather the love of it is.

What either of these testimonies had to do with the issues ostensibly at hand – rulemaking to bring the agency's regulations in line with the recent McCutcheon v. FEC decision and a few other issues – was not clear. However, if the intent of this open hearing was to expose commissioners to public opinion, it may have been a success. Milbank noted that the commission's Democratic members had pushed for this hearing, and that the 32,000 public comments received before Wednesday's session favored tighter campaign finance regulations by a margin of about three to one.

Hillary Clinton is a widely anticipated frontrunner in the 2016 election.Hillary Clinton is a widely anticipated frontrunner in the 2016 election.

Hillary's coordination
The name of the game in modern campaign finance is "coordination." While it is technically illegal for an official candidate's campaign to coordinate spending with the PAC raising unlimited sums in its name, it's an open secret that a lot of this goes on behind the scenes. When this coordination comes to the forefront, however, candidates have to deal with the FEC.

According to a complaint filed by a conservative group called the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, or FACT, Democrat data giant Catalist has been providing its services to liberal campaigns at below market rates. FACT argues that these low rate services should be disclosed as in-kind contributions as per FEC regulations. The complaint states that Democratic politicians and groups have been failing to do so.

"Since Catalist's rates appear not to be the 'usual and normal' charge for these services, the Commission should investigate whether this constitutes an excessive, prohibited, and unreported contribution from Catalist to its federal campaign and party clients," FACT wrote.

The Washington Post noted that a similar complaint was filed against numerous groups on the right, including private firms Data Trust and i360, the Republican National Committee and super PAC American Crossroads. FACT represents another twist in the construction of partisan election machinery – it is reportedly backed by $1 million in seed money from donors who support conservative legal causes. The news source explained that it was formed in response to watchdog groups like the American Democracy Legal Fund and Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, which have been a thorn in conservative political players' sides.

Boehner's contributions
Speaker for the House John Boehner was also recently involved in an FEC action when his reelection committee agreed to pay $4,300 in fines for failing to return excess contributions, according to The Hill.

"In addition to paying a fine, Boehner's committee agreed to certify that one of its representatives participated in a training program held by the FEC"

While super PACs are not limited to contribution caps, there are still limits on what an individual or other PAC can give to any one campaign. Boehner's campaign committee, Friends of John Boehner, failed to return excess donations to 32 individual donors, four multicandidate PACs and three non-multicandidate PACs during the 2012 cycle within a timely fashion, according to the news source. However, it should be noted that these excess contributions only came to $57,000, and as such, represented a small portion of the $22 million raised by the committee during the 2012 cycle.

"Large committees routinely handle these issues," said Boehner spokesman Cory Fritz. "We take compliance with FEC rules and regulations seriously, and have taken corrective actions."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that, in addition to paying a fine, Boehner's committee agreed to certify that one of its representatives participated in a training program held by the FEC and that it implemented internal controls to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

FEC trouble behind bars
Going to jail isn't enough to get out of filing reports with the FEC.

According to The Washington Post, the FEC recently sent the campaign committee for Jesse Jackson Jr. its eighth consecutive failure-to-file notice. Should the committee fail to file its end-of-year reports for 2014, it will face a penalty. However, former Democratic congressman Jesse Jackson is already in jail for misusing campaign money on items like a gold Rolex, a guitar owned by Eddie Van Halen and a fedora owned by Michael Jackson. 

Last year, the FEC fined Jackson almost $18,000 for failing to file the same reports for 2013, the news source explained. In order to stop the cycle of late notices, Jackson would need to formally terminate his committee. However, it appears that there is no one responsible for filing this paperwork since his treasurer quit in 2013.

The world of campaign finance is complex, politically heated and constantly changing. PASS is here to keep you up to date on the latest in this sphere and to keep you in compliance with the FEC.