Republican officials will soon file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., that accuses him of illegally accepting pro bono legal services, a senior party officer tells the Center for Public Integrity.
The pending complaint, which a Van Hollen spokeswoman blasted as a "frivolous action," will argue that the congressman failed to disclose as campaign contributions free legal help he's received from several campaign reform groups as part of a federal lawsuit he's brought against the FEC. The complaint will also call into question the very legality of the pro bono assistance.
Republicans' rationale for the complaint: Van Hollen has stated in court documents that his political campaign would be directly affected by the outcome of ongoing case Van Hollen v. FEC, which aimed to reveal donors behind certain kinds of political attack ads that secretive nonprofit organizations sponsored. Thus, the free legal aid to affect the outcome of the case should be reported as in-kind campaign contributions.
The GOP party officer who confirmed the complaint declined to say who in the Republican party would specifically file it.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, for its part, cheered the pending complaint, although officials there would not confirm whether the committee would itself sign on.
“It is beyond ironic for the former head of the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] to file a lawsuit asking for stricter regulations on reporting political campaign finances and then fail to adhere to existing federal election campaign guidelines," NRCC spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said. "Guess Congressman Van Hollen is putting new meaning to the phrase put your money where your mouth is."
Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said her committee is not involved in the complaint, and therefore, has no comment on the matter.
Van Hollen spokeswoman Bridgett Frey said the pending complaint illustrates how "desperate Republican partisans are to keep a torrent of secret money flowing in political election campaigns."
She added: "This is a good sign that they are afraid that legal efforts to promote transparency and disclosure are making headway."
Both Frey and the three campaign reform groups — the Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21 and Public Citizen — also argued in nearly identical statements to the Center for Public Integrity that pro bono efforts to fight against the FEC "are not contributions for the purpose of influencing a federal election and are therefore not covered" by laws that govern campaign contributions.
In a joint statement, the Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21 and Public Citizen further asserted that "Van Hollen has not violated any federal law, nor have we. The objective of the lawsuit in question is to ensure that elections are conducted under regulations that comply with the federal campaign finance laws, not to influence the outcome of any federal election."
They continued: "We are confident that the FEC will dismiss such a complaint if it is filed."
Investigations into complaints filed with the FEC — and their resolution — are often themselves secretive matters. Months, even years may elapse without the FEC acknowleding a complaint's existence. "To protect the interests of those involved in a complaint, the law requires that any commission action ... be kept strictly confidential until the case is resolved," the agency explains.
Within 30 days after the involved parties are notified of a resolution, the FEC publicly releases the outcomes and case files of the investigations. Complainants and respondents are, however, allowed to waive their rights to secrecy and speak publicly about a case if they so choose.
The six-member commission — three Republican appointees, three Democratic appointees — often deadlocks along ideological lines, meaning there's little guarantee any complaint before the body will garner a majority decision.
Van Hollen, a leading liberal voice on political disclosure issues who's captured at least 62 percent of votes cast during his past five elections, is likely to win a seventh term in November. He faces what's so far token opposition from Republican businessman David Wallace.
Van Hollen also boasts one of the House's more well-funded campaigns this election cycle, reporting more than $1.8 million cash on hand through March 31, according to campaign finance disclosures.