In July 2016, the Federal Election Commission slapped the 60 Plus Association with a $50,000 fine, charging that it hadn’t revealed its donors as legally obliged.
The penalty — along with fines assessed to two other politically active nonprofit groups likewise connected to billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch — represented one of the most decisive decisions this decade at an FEC best known for intramural bickering and ideological gridlock. Government reformers rejoiced.
But 15 months later, the Virginia-based 60 Plus Association has only paid one-tenth of its fine. Chairman Jim Martin says the senior advocacy group, which backs “free enterprise, less government” while supporting conservative politicians, has no plans to pay more. The FEC, meanwhile, isn’t forcing the 60 Plus Association’s compliance — or anything close.
The 60 Plus Association has plenty of debt-dodging company: More than 160 political committees and similar groups together owe the government more than $1.3 million worth of unpaid fines, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Federal Election Commission and U.S. Treasury records since 2000.
Some of those unpaid fines amount to as little as $10 while others soar into five figures. Many cases concern all-but-forgotten also-ran political candidates, but others involve political luminaries — the Rev. Al Sharpton, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough and Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein, among them. Super PACs and politically active nonprofits have joined the nonpayment parade of late. And there’s little evidence any of that cash will soon begin to roll in.
Uncooperative political committee leaders, bureaucratic bumbling and flaccid fine enforcement efforts all contribute to election law breakers outrunning penalties during a time when campaign shenanigans — from Russian advertisements to government contractors bankrolling super PACs — are increasingly brazen and sophisticated.
The situation “reinforces the view of many political actors that there really isn’t a sheriff in town,” said Adam Rappaport, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which filed a complaint against the 60 Plus Association that prompted the FEC’s fine. “Political actors feel confident and comfortable that the FEC will not enforce campaign finance laws against them.”
Commissioners argue — and agency records confirm — that the FEC collects on the vast majority of fines it doles out for election law violations great and small. This decade, the FEC has, on average, assessed about $997,000 in fines each year.