A trio of FEC commissioners just issued a statement urging a penalty for a religious group that violated disclosure requirements. To understand why they were concerned and how the FEC in general got it wrong, we have to go back a few years.
During the 2008 presidential election, a group called Informed Catholic Citizens (their website appears to be defunct) made robocalls supporting John McCain and urging Catholics to vote for him because of his anti-abortion record. The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission in November of 2008, alleging that ICC broke the rules regulating non-profits.
It seems pretty clear that the complaint is warranted.
The statutory scheme which allows non-profits to remain tax-free prohibits “express advocacy” in favor of or against a candidate without certain disclosures to the FEC. In other words, if you don’t want to pay taxes, don’t advocate for a politician.
In order to be in compliance with election laws, ICC would have to disclose how much money they spent on a communication if it contained “express advocacy.”
Let’s look at the text of the robocall and see for ourselves whether it’s “express advocacy.”
“This is Father Bill Carmody, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Colorado Springs. I’m calling on behalf of Informed Catholic Citizens, about the importance of your vote in the election. Regardless of the spinning that some politicians have done, the Catholic Church’s opposition to the evil of abortion has always been the same and is crystal clear. Why is it important in the election? John McCain has a record of supporting life. But in the world of Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, Barack Obama is the most committed abortion rights presidential candidate of either major party in thirty-five years. And the Democratic Party platform adopted in Denver is clearly anti-life. There are many important issues to consider. But as Archbishop Chaput says, every other human right depends on the right to life. If you have not already voted, I pray will search your conscience carefully and consider all the information you deem important and then vote like life depended on it. Because it does. This message is paid for by Informed Catholic Citizens.”
That seems to fit pretty squarely within the realm of express advocacy, don’t you think?
The FEC agreed. They handed down a decision in October saying just that. Unfortunately, though, the report recommended “no further action” at the conclusion of the investigation. This, despite the FEC’s own investigation which revealed that ICC spent more than ten times this mandatory reporting minimum:
The invoice from Magellan Date and Mapping Strategies, dated October 29,2008, states that ICC paid $2,723.92 for the production and dissemination of the Carmody Call. …The invoice also states…that ICC paid for 68,098 calls to be made using the Carmody Call recording…
So, they reach (read: annoy) nearly 70,000 people and spend ten times the reporting limit… and they get a warning? Seems ludicrously insufficient.
If you’re outraged, you’re not alone. In late November, the Democratic members of the commission issued a letter expressing their disagreement with the FEC’s decision.
These three members — Chair Cynthia Bauerly, Commrs. Steven Walther and Ellen Weintraub — made a formal protest against the lack of sanctions handed down. I couldn’t agree more with their reasoning and conclusion.
My first thought when I saw the Commission’s reasoning (they said the dollar amount in question was “relatively small”) was that it was fallacious. How much money ICC spent is not really the point. The reach of the violation should be more significant in calculating penalty. In that regard, the dissenters pointed out that the impact was “substantial.”
The letter also includes an account of ICC’s insistence that the call was not “express advocacy.”
Good thing straining credulity is their specialty.
It’s disappointing that ICC saw no repercussions for their violations, but I’m encouraged by the letter of dissent. Even if the wrong decision was reached, at least there are people on the commission who will stand up and call them out — and publicly, no less.