Mudslinging at the FEC over disclosure

Conservative nonprofit Crossroads GPS sparks battle at elections agency

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Federal Election Commission Chairman Lee Goodman and two of his fellow Republican colleagues skewered Vice Chairwoman Ann Ravel — a Democrat — on Thursday because she didn’t vote to defend the agency last month against litigation from campaign finance reform-minded organizations.

“Not only does this effort derail longstanding Commission practice, but more troublingly, it contravenes well-established legal precedents and evinces a flippant disregard for judicial review,” wrote Goodman, along with FEC commissioners Caroline Hunter and Matthew Petersen.

"Commissioner Ravel has gone to extraordinary and unprecedented lengths to try to censor presentation of the agency’s rationale for its prosecutorial decision in the Crossroads GPS matter," they continued.

The blistering four-page statement came less than four months after Goodman and Ravel vowed to work together to improve the nation’s campaign finance watchdog and to overcome the bitter ideological divide that has for years plagued the agency.

Whether abstaining from the vote draws “furor or not, I’m here to do what’s best for the public and to fulfill the purposes of the FEC,” Ravel told the Center for Public Integrity. “It’s about disclosure.”

The criticism from her peers also follows a commentary by Ravel — published last week in the New York Times — in which she argued the FEC was “failing to enforce the nation’s campaign finance laws” and called out her three Republican colleagues for regularly voting against investigative actions.

The latest controversy over the FEC litigation stems from a vote in December, when the commission deadlocked on whether to approve effectively allowing the agency to investigate Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a conservative 501(c)(4) nonprofit co-founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove.

As a “social welfare” nonprofit, Crossroads GPS is not required to publicly disclose its donors. But some have questioned whether it should have registered as a political committee in 2010, after spending millions of dollars on advertisements calling for the election or defeat of candidates.

The change in status would have meant revealing its donors.

The commission's two Democrats and one independent supported investigating Crossroads GPS, as recommended by the agency’s Office of the General Counsel. They said the group appeared to meet the criteria for a traditional political committee.

“Providing public disclosure is a central part of the mission that Congress entrusted to the Commission,” they wrote later about the vote.

In January, a coalition of campaign finance reform groups, including Public Citizen and ProtectOurElections.org, sued the FEC over the Crossroads GPS matter, accusing it of failing to enforce federal election laws that require certain groups to register as political committees and disclose their donors.

Last month, the commission voted to defend itself against the suit. But Ravel and fellow Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub abstained, sparking criticism this week from their peers.

It’s not the first time a commissioner has abstained or voted against allowing the agency to fight litigation, Weintraub told the Center for Public Integrity. FEC spokeswoman Judy Ingram said votes on litigation are made behind closed doors and typically not made public.

Ravel defended her position, saying it “was a principled stance not to defend the statements by the commissioners who did not want to investigate.”

“We thought this was a case that was clearly one where it met the standard for reason to believe to investigate. It’s a very low standard to look into the matter further,” she said, adding that she originally voted against the move on a paper ballot passed around and “out of a concern for collegiality, I changed my vote to abstention.”

Ravel, former chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, told the Center for Public Integrity last year that fighting for expanded disclosure at the federal level was an “essential purpose of the FEC.”

For their part, the Republican members of the FEC have tried, unsuccessfully, to secure four votes to release the Office of General Counsel's 76-page draft recommendation on the Crossroads GPS matter, which, for now, has been fully redacted by the agency, as first reported by the National Journal.

Ravel said the general counsel realized the report, discussed at a closed-door executive session meeting, wasn't sufficient, and that the commission allowed him to withdraw and redo it, making the document subject to attorney-client and "deliberative process" privileges.

"The reports from General Counsel's office are only made public after the Commission has made a decision on the underlying matter — which never happened in that case," Ravel said, adding that as a former county counsel in California, she knows that releasing drafts or withdrawn documents can chill open discussions, especially in highly political environments.

Goodman, Hunter and Petersen did not respond to requests for comment made through the FEC's press office. But in a letter to the editor in response to Ravel’s New York Times commentary, they said she “would rather grandstand than follow the law and judicial precedent.”

“We enforce the law as written by Congress and construed by the courts, not as our colleague and her ‘reformer’ allies wish it were,” they wrote.

Rove and others associated with Crossroads GPS have maintained their activities comply with the law and that the group’s primary purpose isn’t campaign activity.

Michael Beckel and Dave Levinthal contributed to this report.

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