- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Weeks after the Federal Election Commission (FEC) closed a campaign finance probe of Rep. Stephen Lee Fincher, Tennessee Republican, a political rival is suing the regulatory agency for failing to enforce federal law.

The lawsuit, filed by the campaign of Roy Herron, a Tennessee lawyer and the Democratic candidate who lost to Mr. Fincher in 2010, comes after the FEC deadlocked along party lines on whether to fine Mr. Fincher’s campaign for misreporting the source of a $250,000 loan.

A first term Republican, Mr. Fincher’s campaign initially reported that personal funds were the source of the loan, but later amended campaign filings to show that the money came from the Gates Banking and Trust Co., where his father was on the board of directors.

He beat Mr. Herron in the 2010 election and Mr. Herrons campaign raised concerns about the failure to report the source loan, but also pointed to the loan as possible evidence of an illegal campaign contribution.

Divided on whether to impose a monetary penalty — Democrats on the FEC were in favor, Republicans against — the matter was closed without Mr. Fincher’s campaign being penalized. In a statement, the FEC said there was “an insufficient number of votes” to support complaints that Mr. Fincher’s campaign had violated the law.

The matter seemed settled nearly a year after the complaint was filed, but then Mr. Herron’s campaign last week filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington against the FEC.

Among other charges, the Herron campaign’s complaint specifically faulted a finding by the FEC staff that there was no information to suggest that the Fincher campaign intentionally delayed reporting the source of the campaign loan.

“Knowing there was an error and knowing that they had a responsibility to correct that error, but did not, is knowing and willful,” the Herron campaign argued in its lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for the FEC, Judith Ingram, declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday, saying agency policy prohibits commenting on matters of pending litigation.

But a lawyer for the Fincher campaign expressed confidence that the complaint would get tossed. The Fincher campaign was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

“The FEC reviewed this matter and dismissed it without further action,” Fincher campaign attorney Elliot S. Berke said. “We expect the court to do the same.”

According to FEC records, the Fincher campaign acknowledged “reporting errors and omissions that required amended reports” to be filed with the FEC. But in a four-page “statement of reasons,” the three FEC Democrats noted that the Fincher campaign did not correct its reports until more than two months after the Herron campaign filed a complaint, weeks after the election was over.

The statement also said the Republicans on the FEC did not want to issue a financial penalty, citing a similar case involving the campaign of Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, which was not issued a fine.

With the latest ruling in the Fincher campaign case, the FEC has a mixed record when it comes to issuing fines in cases involving the failure to properly disclose loan information. While financial penalties were not leveled against the Fincher or Cantwell campaigns, records show fines were issued in three other campaign finance cases, including a 2007 case involving the campaign of Rep. Henry Cuellar, Texas Democrat.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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