GOP shelves FEC complaint against Van Hollen

Accusation that Democratic congressman accepted prohibited legal services falls flat

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A Republican Party plan to formally accuse Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., of illegally accepting pro bono legal services has fizzled, the Center for Public Integrity has learned.

A Republican party official this week identified the National Republican Congressional Committee as the previously unnamed GOP group that had considered filing a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Van Hollen — but it never did.

The NRCC, which has panned Van Hollen for what it said were federal campaign law violations, confirmed as much.

"At this time we haven't made any efforts to move forward with an FEC complaint," said NRCC spokeswoman Andrea Bozek, who declined to elaborate.

Van Hollen spokeswoman Bridgett Frey declined to comment Tuesday, but she had earlier decried Republican threats as "desperate" and an indication that "legal efforts to promote transparency and disclosure are making headway."

Republicans' decision not to pursue FEC action against Van Hollen comes days after a U.S. District Court judge handed Van Hollen a legal victory — of sorts — by striking down FEC regulations that frequently allow the donors to nonprofits, corporations and unions that sponsor so-called "electioneering communications" to go unreported.

A legal term created as part of the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, electioneering communications are, in essence, political issue ads that mention a political candidate, are broadcast shortly before an election and don't overtly advocate for a candidate's election or defeat.

Van Hollen, the GOP planned to argue, had stated in court documents that his political campaign would be directly affected by the outcome of the Van Hollen v. FEC lawsuit, which aimed to reveal donors behind electioneering communications that secretive nonprofits had sponsored. Thus, they asserted, the free legal aid to affect the outcome of the case should be reported as in-kind campaign contributions.

It is possible that another person or organization could yet file a complaint against Van Hollen.

The FEC does not comment on pending complaints, nor does it acknowledge their existence until after commissioners rule on them. Civil fines are typically the most serious punishment the FEC can mete out, although it may in rare cases refer matters to the Department of Justice for criminal investigation.

Electioneering communications, meanwhile, have become evermore rare.

Nonprofits that would be affected by the Van Hollen decision now often produce advertisements during the time immediately before elections that overtly advocate for or against political candidates. Doing so generally allows them to avoid disclosing their donors.

Given this, the National Law Review declared Van Hollen's legal win a "Pyrrhic victory" where "the more explicit you are about trying to influence the election, the less you must disclose about your donors."

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