Breaking Campaign Laws: Crime That Does Pay
Crime does pay...when it comes to breaking campaign finance laws.
A few days ago, the Federal Elections Commission settled a case against the Media Fund, a pro-Democratic 527 group that spent more than $50 million in so-called soft money in 2004 trying to influence the presidential election that year. What was the penalty assessed? $580,000. The Media Fund--which was partly bankrolled by George Soros--will have to pay that much in a fine. It sure sounds like a lot, but it's only a wee bit more than 1 percent of the money the group, which was headed by Harold Ickes, the former White House deputy chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, pumped into the campaign.
The FEC declared that the Media Fund, which is no longer active, had violated campaign finance laws by using unlimited contributions from labor unions and other financial benefactors (soft money, that is) for ads supporting John Kerry and attacking George Bush. (Here's one critical deconstruction of a Media Fund ad.) Lawyers for the Media Fund and other 527s have argued that in 2004 such activity was believed to be legal by the folks running 527s (which take their name from the provision of the tax code that applies to them), and the FEC has stated that the Media Fund did operate in accordance with the advice it received from its attorneys. But the FEC has ruled that only political committees that register with the FEC and abide by contribution limits and public disclosure requirements can directly attempt to influence a presidential election.
The Media Fund is the latest target of the FEC's crusade against the largely unregulated 527s that were operating in 2004. It has also gone after America Coming Together, another pro-Democratic campaign group, and two pro-GOP outfits: Progress for America Voter Fund and the Swfit Boat Veterans for Truth. (After the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, groups like these became major recipients of the soft money that used to flow to the political parties.) All together, these four groups spent $200 million in what the FEC has determined to be illegal soft money. All together, these four groups have to pay $2.4 million in fines.
These punishments--while historic for the FEC--will hardly serve as a deterrent. Such fines, which come long after the offending activity transpired, can easily be considered an inconvenience, the cost of doing business. They will do little to persuade political operators on both sides to throttle back.