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Forcing Investigation into Allegations of Illegal Campaign Activity: Alliance for Democracy et al. v. Ashcroft 2000 and Spirit of America PAC

On February 1, 2001, a Washington Post article reported that the Spirit of America PAC, a leadership PAC connected to United States Attorney General John Ashcroft, contributed a fundraising list of 100,000 donors to Ashcroft's Senate reelection committee, even though the PAC had already donated the maximum of $10,000 to the campaign in the 2000 election cycle. According to the article, FEC documents established that the reelection committee, Ashcroft 2000, "made more than $116,000 by renting out the list to other fundraisers." The article also stated that Spirit of America PAC developed the fundraising list between 1997 and 1999 "at a cost of more than $2 million." Neither Spirit of America PAC nor Ashcroft's campaign committee reported the contribution to the FEC.

Federal law prohibits political action committees from contributing, and candidates and their authorized committees from receiving, more than $10,000 during an election cycle. (Political action committees may contribute $5000 during the primary election and $5000 during the general election.) Federal law also requires all PAC donations must be reported. By donating, receiving and failing to report a contribution with a value well in excess of the permissible contribution limit, especially after the maximum contribution had already been made and received, Mr. Ashcroft's leadership PAC and his campaign committee clearly violated federal law.

NVRI, Common Cause, the Alliance for Democracy, and two individual voters filed an administrative complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that Ashcroft 2000 and Spirit of America PAC violated federal election law by making and accepting campaign contributions in excess of statutory limits and by failing to report the contribution. The administrative complaint requested that the Commission investigate, prosecute, and remedy such violations.

One year later, the FEC had not acted. On March 19, 2002, NVRI and its co-counsel -- Daniel Mach, from the Washington, D.C. office of the prominent law firm Jenner & Block, and Board of Advisors member Jordan Yeager -- filed a complaint on behalf of the Alliance for Democracy and the two individual Missouri voters in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking an order to compel the FEC to act on the administrative complaint.

For most of the time since the lawsuit was filed, the FEC has been trying to avoid giving the plaintiffs access to any meaningful evidence to prove their case. The FEC has provided only a confidential "chronology" of its actions in connection with the administrative complaint, but refuses to answer any questions or explain the timing of any of its actions. The Court has repeatedly ordered that the FEC must explain its rationale for its claimed exemption from the normal rules of court procedure.

Rather than provide this information to the Court, the FEC filed a motion for summary judgment and to delay discovery. Essentially, the FEC stated that the plaintiffs had no right to bring the case and, even if they did, the FEC should win because it had not acted contrary to law. On behalf of the plaintiffs, NVRI vigorously opposed those contentions. NVRI also made its own motion, asking the Court to refrain from deciding the FEC's motion for summary judgment because the FEC's refusal to provide any evidence has harmed the plaintiffs' ability to oppose the summary judgment motion. The Court will not have all papers it needs to make a decision until early March, 2003.

However, the Campaign and Media Legal Center, an organization established "to represent the public interest in strong enforcement of campaign finance laws," filed a "friend of the court" brief supporting our right to get evidence from the FEC.

The Court clearly saw through the FEC's ruse. Judge Emmett Sullivan refused to dismiss the case and, more importantly, ordered the FEC to provide answers about its handling of the case by August 30, 2003.

Stay tuned as the case proceeds through the evidence-gathering stage.

Read NVRI Attorney Lisa Danetz's Op-Editorial (pdf) that appeared in the Washington Post on March 13, 2002. Visit our legal library to read the legal documents in the case. Click here to read the friend of the court brief filed by the Campaign and Media Legal Center or click here (pdf) to read an article by Amy Keller, a reporter for Roll Call, about the case.

Challenging Barriers: