- The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2012

This year’s political campaigns are saturated with money, yet the Federal Election Commission, the watchdog on all the raising and spending, is issuing fewer warnings and completing fewer audits — and even when it does issue fines, political committees routinely don’t bother to pay.

The FEC’s powers are so weak that for most offenses it can only ask political groups to enter a voluntary process in which they bargain to agree to a monetary settlement. If the group refuses or an agreement isn’t reached, then the FEC must take them to court to try to enforce its judgment.

For more straightforward offenses such as failing to file reports or missing deadlines, Congress gave the FEC the ability to automatically levy fines. But campaigns have learned not to fear the body, and even those fines are often simply ignored, The Washington Times found.

Since the year 2000, the FEC has levied 2,500 “administration fines,” and nearly 20 percent went unpaid. For fines greater than $1,000, the non-pay rate was still substantial at 12 percent.

In 2010, Joel Pollak, who is now editor-in-chief of Breitbart.com, the conservative website founded by Andrew Breitbart, ran as a Republican challenging Illinois Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky, raising $700,000 and garnering one-third of the vote.

After the election, the FEC said the campaign failed to file necessary reports and fined it $11,000. It was the third penalty assessed to the committee. Mr. Pollak’s campaign neither responded to nor paid the FEC.

“Apparently without my knowledge the campaign treasurer, legally liable for administrative fines, had not filed the final report or closed the campaign committee as he had indicated to me in writing,” Mr. Pollak told The Times. “I consulted legal options and it turns out there is nothing I can do since it turns out I am not personally liable for the fine nor do I have legal standing to sue the treasurer.”

Other times those who are subject to fines “just disappear,” said Bob Biersack, a longtime top FEC official now at the Center for Responsive Politics.

“People move, people die. Those automatically get turned over to a collections agency,” he said. “But some of them are never going to get paid because the organization just dissolves” — something that is easy for a failed campaign to do after it has served its purpose.

In 2003, the commission noted that Philip Lowe, a House candidate in California whose LinkedIn profile says he is an investor who was once featured on Black Entertainment Television’s “Making It,” raised $280,000 and accumulated $500,000 in debt, then repeatedly failed to report on the status of that money. The campaign had six previous FEC violations and was fined $23,750.

Nine years later, he has yet to pay or even formally respond to the notice of infraction, though in 2004 the treasurer wrote to the FEC with the inverse of Mr. Pollak’s reasoning: “I have not worked for Mr. Lowe since the campaign ended,” Patricia Jones wrote. “I am not responsible for this debt of his campaign.”

Under FEC rules, treasurers are the responsible party, even though they are often accountants on retainer and not employed by the campaign.

When violations get more serious, the FEC cannot automatically issue fines, but must try to negotiate a penalty with the campaign or else go to court. But FEC watchers said that is rare. It has occurred about 100 times since 1976, an FEC spokesperson said.

“At one time when the FEC was actually taking people to court, it was actually a threat. If it’s not going to litigate these cases you lose a lot of leverage,” said Lawrence M. Noble, a former commissioner. “All of this sends a signal that this is not a regulatory agency that has to be feared.”

In cases where the FEC suspects severe problems in a campaign, they conduct a comprehensive audit. But that process touches few committees. As of this month, the FEC has released audits of five candidates and three political action committees for the 2010 election, compared with 27 candidates and 11 PACs for 2006.

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