Judicial review

FEC Sued For Not Explaining Decisions

The Federal Election Commission routinely dismisses complaints without explanation, depriving complainants of a basis to seek judicial review, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by a public interest organization.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) charges that the FEC has demonstrated a pattern and practice in the last two years of dismissing complaints because the Republican and Democratic commissioners divide 3-3, particularly in controversial cases. The agency frequently fails to provide a rationale for its decisions before the 60 days allowed by federal law for an appeal challenging the dismissals, the suit says.

"Instead of ensuring fair elections in which all players follow the rules, too often commissioners refuse to act, and then, refuse to even explain why they failed to act," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, in a statement. "This leaves Americans in the dark, with no legal remedy. Even worse, candidates can freely break campaign finance laws to gain an edge in a federal election without any fear of repercussions."

Sloan contends that the FEC is deliberately failing to issue explanations in hopes of running the clock on potential appeals.

"It's hard to know how often this has happened," she added. "We know it has happened to us twice."

For example, the suit states, in March 2007, CREW and Sloan filed a complaint with the FEC against Peace Through Strength Political Action Committee and its treasurer, Meredith Kelley, for violations of federal election law. The complaint alleged the political action committee of Rep. Duncan Hunter who was then a candidate for president of the United States, had knowingly received 11 contributions exceeding the law's individual contribution limit for "testing the waters" activities. Three years later, in June 2010, the FEC informed CREW it was closing the file and documents would be placed in public records within 30 days. CREW has seen no documents to date.

And in September 2004, CREW filed a complaint against The November Fund, Bill Sittman as treasurer of The November Fund, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue as President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Bush-Cheney ‘04, and Bush Cheney ‘04 Campaign Manager Ken Mehlman for violations of federal campaign finance laws. Four years later, the FEC advised CREW of the complaint's dismissal and failed to provide a statement of explanation within the 60-day period.

The lawsuit also cites six other examples in which the agency either did not give explanations for dismissals of complaints or took as long as four years to provide them.

A spokesperson for the FEC said the agency had no comment on the lawsuit.

In CREW v. FEC, the organization seeks a declaratory judgment that the FEC's actions are arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law. It also seeks an injunction to compel the FEC to provide explanations for dismissal within the 60-day statute of limitations so complainants can seek judicial review.

(Published by BLT - August 11, 2010)

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