FEC’s Ann Ravel: resigning, but ‘not going away’

Advocacy, academia next up for combative Democratic election regulator

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Ann Ravel on Sunday fulfilled her promise to quit the Federal Election Commission by May.

In doing so, Ravel — who directed her resignation letter at President Donald Trump and included unsolicited advice for new president — leaves behind an agency the outspoken Democratic commissioner says she at once considers “essential” to American democracy and as useful, in its current state, as “men’s nipples.”

But Ravel tells the Center for Public Integrity she’s reaffirming her quest to rid elections of secret money and reduce wealthy individuals’ influence on politics, albeit from her home in California instead of Washington, D.C.

Her immediate plans include teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and joining the boards of “several” nonprofit organizations, two of which primarily advocate for campaign finance reforms. Ravel, whose resignation is effective March 1, declined to name the nonprofits because her appointments there are not yet official.

“Don’t worry,” said Ravel, the six-member commission’s chairwoman in 2015. “I’m not going away.”

Since joining the FEC in October 2013, Ravel had little trouble finding limelight. Her unabashedly left-leaning campaign reform agenda found high-profile platforms that ranged from the New York Timesop-ed pages to segments on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”

Ravel rarely missed an opportunity to accuse fellow Republican commissioners of disregarding election laws — a recent FEC deadlock involving a conservative nonprofit’s TV advertising practices proved particularly vexing to Ravel.

Her parting shot? A 25-page missive entitled, “Dysfunction and Deadlock: The Enforcement Crisis at the Federal Election Commission Reveals the Unlikelihood of Draining the Swamp,” in which she derides her GOP colleagues as “a bloc of three commissioners [that] routinely thwarts, obstructs and delays action on the very campaign finance laws its members were appointed to administer.”

Both Ravel’s style and substance frequently agitated her Republican counterparts on the six-member, bipartisan commission and even led to death threats.

Current Vice Chairwoman Caroline Hunter most publicly clashed with Ravel, who Hunter accused of gross political overreach — attempting to enforce campaign laws that don’t exist, instead of regulating and ruling on ones that do. A “progression from foolishness to nihilism” is how Hunter in August described Ravel’s FEC tenure.

“I wish Commissioner Ravel well,” Hunter said Sunday. “I hope her replacement will follow the law and refrain from pursuing his or her own personal political agenda.”

(Update, 11:21 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 23: Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman offered a pointed rebuttal to Ravel's 25-page document, saying she "manipulated her statistics purposely in order to advance her philosophical narrative that First Amendment rights should be severely restricted.)

With Ravel’s departure, all five remaining FEC commissioners continue to serve at the agency despite their terms having long ago expired. (Ravel’s was due to end in May.)

In Ravel’s resignation letter to Trump, she urged him to appoint new commissioners to replace Hunter, as well as Republican commissioners Matthew Petersen and Goodman, Democratic commissioner Ellen Weintraub and independent Chairman Steven Walther. Trump is responsible for nominating new FEC commissioners.

“I’m an optimist, and I’m always hopeful, given the statements he’s made, that the president will do what he’s said,” Ravel said of her resignation letter. “But I have to admit that his appointment of a former FEC commissioner as White House counsel, whose goal it was was to emasculate the agency, makes me skeptical.”

Ravel is referring to White House Counsel Don McGahn, himself a former FEC chairman whose anti-regulatory stance has long disquieted Democrats convinced he’s out to gut standing federal election laws designed to protect against corruption and encourage political transparency.

And for all Trump’s talk of “draining the swamp” that he considers Washington, D.C., politics to be, he’s to date publicly ignored the FEC, which is congressionally mandated to administer and enforce the nation’s campaign finance laws.

Trump, foremost, has not indicated if and when he’ll fill FEC commissioner slots or if he’ll adhere to a standing practice of a president rubber stamping FEC nominees floated by Senate Republicans and Democrats.

Conceivably, Trump could nominate anyone he wants to the FEC, including Libertarians or independents that share his political sensibilities. Federal law only mandates that the FEC feature no more than three commissioners from any one political party — it says nothing about them having to be Republicans or Democrats. Such a scenario could give Republicans a potential advantage on the commission.

But Walther, for his part, says he’s yet to hear from the Trump administration. The White House did not respond to requests for comment about its intentions for the FEC and Ravel’s resignation.

Ravel, without detailing her reasons, says she believes “others on the commission are likely to go into the [Trump] administration” and soon leave the FEC.

Losing a quorum of four commissioners would stop the FEC’s very ability to conduct business. The commission must have four commissioners in place to take most any official action, from opening investigations to levying fines to offering political candidates and committees formal advice on how to comply with federal law. This last happened in 2008, and for months, it crippled the agency.

Goodman, who could not be reached for comment Sunday, in December told the Center for Public Integrity he’s make a decision in early 2017 about whether to leave the FEC. Hunter on Sunday declined to discuss her future plans. Petersen, Walther and Weintraub have each recently said they don’t have immediate plans to leave the FEC.

Meanwhile at the FEC, the agency of roughly 350 employees faces numerous challenges this year.

The agency is attempting to migrate its millions of public records to a new website and physically move the agency to a new headquarters.

And the FEC continues to grapple with low employee morale that, statistically, keeps getting worse. Many rank-and-file employees are also perplexed with senior managers, who last year improperly obtained the results of what was supposed to be a confidential survey about such low morale.

Catharsis of sorts has come in the form of the @alt_fec Twitter account, which offers decidedly Ravel-esque, and often anti-Trump, critiques of the agency. (It also has about three times the followers of the official @FEC account, despite only being in existence for less than a month.)

Weintraub, the only remaining Democrat on the FEC come next week, said Ravel’s presence will be missed at the agency.

“Ann’s been a strong ally in the fight for more complete disclosure of money in politics and more robust enforcement of campaign finance laws,” Weintraub said. “And I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of Ann Ravel.”

Ravel says she has no regrets serving on the FEC — or attracting attention to what she believes is right.

“I take seriously my obligation to the public,” Ravel said. “When I see I’m in a job where I can’t do the job I am there to do, I’m going to speak out about it.”

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