WASHINGTON (AP) - The Federal Election Commission says comedian Stephen Colbert can use his TV show's resources to boost his political action committee. But he must publicly disclose some major expenses as in-kind contributions from the show's corporate owners.
Colbert said Thursday that he could not have been happier with the ruling. Colbert played it straight during his appearance before the commission, saving his trademark quips for a crowd that gathered outside the commission building after the meeting.
Colbert is forming a so-called super PAC that can raise unlimited amounts of money for elections.
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Stephen Colbert delights in lampooning politicians on his Comedy Central show, but he plans to raise some serious issues about public disclosure of corporate campaign contributions before the Federal Election Commission on Thursday.
Colbert, who plays a conservative TV pundit on "The Colbert Report," wants to launch Colbert Super PAC, a type of political action committee that would allow him to raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and individuals to support or oppose candidates in the 2012 elections through independent expenditures such as TV ads.
Colbert is asking the commission on Thursday for a so-called media exemption to allow him to use his show's airtime, staff and other resources for his political action committee without having to publicly disclose them as in-kind contributions from Comedy Central's parent company, Viacom Inc.
Colbert has said those undisclosed contributions could include the use of his show's staff to create TV advertisements about candidates that would air as paid commercials on other shows and networks.
The Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 have urged the election commission to reject Colbert's request because they said it could open a "gaping loophole" in campaign disclosure laws.
"I would suspect that Mr. Colbert would not want his activities to serve as a vehicle for opening up major loopholes in the campaign finance laws that would allow companies to provide secret money to influence elections," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.
The two campaign finance watchdog groups warned that a favorable ruling for Colbert could spur many more undisclosed contributions to political figures who are TV hosts or commentators and who could opt to create their own super PACs to take advantage of any new loopholes.
The groups cited politicians such Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum who already have traditional political action committees and are either working now, or have worked, as TV hosts or commentators.
"Many television show hosts who are serious politicians have political committees that could reap great financial benefit" if Colbert wins a favorable ruling, the groups wrote in a joint letter to the Federal Election Commission.
Trevor Potter, a prominent campaign finance attorney and a former Federal Election Commission chairman who is representing Colbert, declined to comment.
Potter heads The Campaign Legal Center but said he is acting solely as Colbert's attorney and has disqualified himself from having any role in the group's actions on the Colbert matter.
"The Colbert Report" has used satire to shine a light on campaign finance rules following the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court that helped pave the way for super PACs. Campaign finance reform advocates complained the ruling gave wealthy donors, particularly companies and unions, considerably more sway in politics.
Super PACs can accept unlimited contributions from corporations, labor unions or individuals, unlike candidates or traditional political action committees. Super PACs cannot contribute directly to candidates, however.
Asked if Colbert's effort to form a super PAC is serious or more of a stunt, Potter said Wednesday that the comic is raising important and complex questions that the Federal Election Commission is wrestling with.
"There are serious, legitimate, questions about what such a PAC has to report to the FEC," Potter said in an email response to The Associated Press. "Those questions are the subject of Mr. Colbert's advisory opinion request to the commission."
Colbert's campaign to create a political action committee is not without some comic jabs. His political action committee slogan is "Making a better tomorrow, tomorrow."
Colbert's comic flair surfaced in a recent letter to the Federal Election Commission.
"Colbert Super PAC will also pay usual and normal administrative expenses, including but not limited to luxury hotel stays, private jet travel and PAC mementos from Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus," Colbert's lawyers wrote to the commissioners.
"This is not just about the cash," the comedian said during Wednesday night's episode of "The Colbert Report." "I will also accept credit cards."
In March, Colbert said he was forming a traditional political action committee. But that kind of committee has stricter rules on fundraising, so he announced plans to form his own super PAC instead.
Colbert has said any ads for Colbert Super PAC would not be coordinated with any candidate or party.