Just after the federal government shut down Oct. 1, and one of the government’s more dysfunctional agencies stopped functioning altogether, Chinese hackers picked their moment to attack.
They waylaid the Federal Election Commission’s networks. They crashed computer systems that publicly disclose how billions of dollars are raised and spent each election cycle by candidates, parties and political action committees.
As minutes turned to hours, the FEC found itself largely defenseless against what may be the worst act of sabotage in its 38-year history. The government had furloughed all 339 agency employees, save for the presidentially appointed commissioners, and not even one staffer had been deemed “necessary to the prevention of imminent threats” to federal property, the minimum measure for keeping someone on the job.
And it happened just months after an independent auditor commissioned by the government warned that the FEC’s information systems were at “high risk” to infiltration — a charge the FEC roundly disputed, saying its “systems are secure.”
This hacking ordeal, confirmed by three government officials involved in an ongoing investigation that included the Department of Homeland Security, marks the nadir of a year that ranks among the commission’s darkest, according to a six-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity.
An analysis of thousands of records and interviews with more than 50 current and former commissioners, staff members and associates reveals:
- The commission over the past year has reached a paralyzing all-time low in its ability to reach consensus, stalling action on dozens of rulemaking, audit and enforcement matters, some of which are years old.
- Despite an explosion in political spending hastened by key Supreme Court decisions, the agency’s funding has remained flat for five years and staffing levels have fallen to a 15-year low.
- Analysts charged with scouring disclosure reports to ensure candidates and political committees are complying with laws have a nearly quarter-million-page backlog. Commissioners themselves are grappling with nearly 270 unresolved enforcement cases.
- Staff morale has plummeted as key employees have fled and others question whether their work remains relevant. Among top FEC jobs currently unfilled or filled on an “acting” basis: general counsel, associate general counsel for policy, associate general counsel for litigation, chief financial officer and accounting director. The staff director doubles as IT director.
As the nation heads into what will undoubtedly be the most expensive midterm election in history and a 2016 presidential election that, in no small way, has already begun, the FEC is rotting from the inside out.