- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2008

For more on this story, check tomorrow’s editions of The Washington Times or www.washingtontimes.com.

The Federal Election Commission board was set to tackle important campaign finance questions today, including whether a sitting U.S. senator can use political donations to help defray legal costs in an ethics probe.

But in an unprecedented situation for the nation’s election law enforcement body, four of the six spots on the FEC’s board remain unfilled. And because the law requires four votes for a quorum, today’s morning meeting was doomed from the start.

With only two votes, the FEC cannot launch investigations, file lawsuits or approve formal legal opinion in the middle of a presidential campaign.

Instead, the remaining two members are relegated to giving unofficial advice, though the FEC’s staff is continuing to collect, inspect and analyze campaign finance reports.

“We are trying to the best of our abilities to keep things functioning here,” said Ellen L. Weintraub, vice chair of the FEC.

The vacancies stem from a political fight over President Bush’s nomination of Hans A. von Spakovsky. Formerly an attorney for the Justice Department, he served on the FEC board last year as a recess appointment.

One of the most pressing issues heading into the FEC board meeting concerned a legal opinion by FEC attorneys that said New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici could use campaign money to pay his legal costs in an ongoing ethic probe.

Mr. Domenici has been the target of an ethics complaint filed in March by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which said he broke ethics rules in 2006 when contacting the U.S. attorney in New Mexico about an ongoing investigation. He disputed the accusation.

“Although the Commission has scheduled a ‘meeting’ on the matter, the reality is that no ‘meeting’ will occur, and the Commission will not be able to rule on our request and satisfy its statutory obligation to do so,” Domenici attorney Donald F. McGahn stated in a letter to the FEC.

The letter also questioned whether the FEC board could meet without four board members. However, Mr. Mason said the FEC had revised its rules to allow two members to meet and discuss certain issues.

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