The Campaign Legal Center has filed a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission, asking a judge to order commissioners to punish a political action committee accused of illegally coordinating its activities with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Correct the Record, the pro-Clinton PAC, admitted it took its marching orders from Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, the legal center charged, saying that was a clear violation of the law. But the FEC has declined to act.
“Unless the court intervenes, the FEC’s inaction has paved the way for 2020 presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle to break the law,” said Trevor Potter, president of CLC.
Federal laws allow coordination between campaigns and PACs that meet strict contribution and reporting restrictions.
But Correct the Record, headed by Clinton ally David Brock, coordinated strategy without meeting those strict limits, the CLC says.
The CLC filed a complaint with the FEC in October 2016, and the commission’s general counsel had recommended fining the Clinton campaign and the PAC.
The FEC, though, deadlocked 2-2 in June on the matter. It takes a vote of four commissioners to impose a punishment.
Two Democrat-backed commissioners voted for sanctions, while two GOP-backed commissioners voted against a punishment for Mrs. Clinton and Correct the Record. Two commission seats are empty.
“Despite their opposition to Clinton, Republicans seem to be betting that maintaining a loophole for big money will favor them in the long term,” said Neil Makhija, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Eugene Mazo, a professor at Rutgers Law School, said with the FEC down two members, it would have taken an unanimous vote to impose the sanctions.
“The parties have very different views of campaign finance reform,” he said.
The CLC filed its lawsuit Friday.
Douglas Spencer, a law professor at the University of Connecticut, said he thinks the campaign group has a case. The FEC held a political action committee liable for coordinating ads with Mitt Romney’s GOP presidential campaign in 2012, he pointed out.
In that situation, the FEC fined the PAC three years after the initial complaint was filed.
Mr. Spencer said if the fines are relatively small and occur after the activity — or are nonexistent in the situation with Mrs. Clinton’s election activity — there won’t be any impact on super PAC behavior.
“If the FEC is unwilling to regulate/enforce the independence of super PACs then they will become the largest loophole in campaign finance law (some believe they already are),” Mr. Spencer said in an email to The Washington Times.
Ron Fein, legal director for Free Speech for People, said coordination between PACs and campaigns has been an issue since 2010, after a Supreme Court ruling allowed interest groups to spend their money on political advertising — though they still cannot donate directly to political campaigns.
The coordination, though, can be punished by the FEC or the Justice Department, like in the case of Tyler Harber, a Republican operative who was sent to prison in 2015 for two years after admitting in court to having worked as a campaign manager for a candidate in Virginia but also creating a PAC to pay for ads benefiting his candidate.
“Whether this is happening with Democrats or Republicans, it’s a source of corruption,” Mr. Fein said.