Obama’s first choice for FEC raises questions about stance on 527s

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A few days ago, President Obama made attorney John Sullivan his first nomination to fill one of the three vacant seats on the Federal Election Commission. If confirmed by the Senate, Sullivan would fill the slot of Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat.

Sullivan, a $560 donor to Obama’s 2008 campaign, has been associate general counsel to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) since 1997. While undoubtedly the campaign appreciated his personal generosity, it was likely even more grateful for his employer’s contributions — monetary and otherwise — to Obama’s campaign during both the primary and general election campaigns. The two million-member union endorsed Obama in February 2008 and immediately authorized up to $5 million in independent spending to help his efforts.

If Sullivan is confirmed, he will likely face an issue we explored in our The Buying of the President 2008 project about the role of 527 committees in elections. In 2004, the FEC did not offer guidelines as to what these largely unregulated committees could do, but groups like America Coming Together, Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, and MoveOn were fined after the election was over for violating campaign finance laws.

In 2008, 527 groups continued to spend large sums of money on the sort of electioneering communication efforts that the FEC's fines had indicated were not within the bounds of the law. But with the commission lacking a quorum for much of that year and with a trio of deregulatory-minded commissioners blocking some punishments even after the fact, enforcement of these provisions arguably grew weaker than ever.

Which raises the question of where Sullivan will stand on the issue. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the single largest contributor to 527 committees in the 2008 cycle: SEIU. The union’s $34,534,324 in contributions dwarfed even the second highest contributor (AFSCME with $6,403,269).

We attempted to reach Sullivan for comment. A spokeswoman for SEIU referred us to the White House communications office; they did not respond to our request for comment.

So, will the Commissioner-designate back the weak FEC status quo or use his insider knowledge of how the system works to help fulfill the president's promise to change the way Washington works? Time will tell.

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