Campaign finance watchdog sues FEC over Ohio black money group

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Two years ago, the public watch group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a campaign finance complaint against an Ohio-based black money group called Freedom Vote. Lawyers for the Federal Election Commission investigated and conclusively demonstrated that these violations took place. Open and close the case, right?

This month, CREW filed a new complaint – this time a lawsuit against the FEC itself. This is because despite an overwhelming body of evidence, the commissioners failed to take action against Freedom Vote. The six-member bipartisan commission found itself at an impasse last November over whether to move forward with any kind of sanction.

The case highlights structural deficiencies and the freezing pace of campaign finance enforcement. As investigators began their work, vacant positions on the commission hampered their progress. Without a quorum of commissioners to take enforcement action, Freedom Vote was able to ignore subpoenas. Once the commission was fully staffed and an investigation was completed, the even division among members left them at an impasse. Because the FEC does not release information until a case is closed, CREW notes in its lawsuit, the findings of the investigation were only revealed after one of the commissioners pressured to punish Freedom Vote has agreed to close the case.

In one declaration Signed by three of the FEC members, they argued that the investigation revealed “overwhelming evidence” that Freedom Vote was acting inappropriately as a political committee.

“The survey found that from 2014 until its termination as an entity in 2019, over 71% of Freedom Vote spending totaling more than $ 3.4 million was federal campaign activity,” reported they wrote.

To examine Freedom Vote’s actual campaign expenses is to step into a past political life. Their main goal at the start? Former Speaker of the House John Boehner. Their biggest recipient? US Senator Rob Portman but back in his first candidacy for re-election against Ted Strickland. And the dollar figures in question are relatively meager. FEC investigators determined that Freedom Vote invested around $ 3 million in that 2016 race, of which about a third was in an ad criticizing Strickland. According to OpenSecrets, external spending groups contributed $ 53 million to this competition.

But while its political operations were relatively small and several years old, thin threads connect the organization to the present. In 2016, he received $ 100,000 from Empowering Ohio’s Economy, the AEP-funded black money group involved in the HB 6 scandal.

According to the commissioner’s statement, the long delay and subsequent shutdown of Freedom Vote prompted some members to refuse to punish the group. But they argue that this is the wrong course of action.

“By abdicating our enforcement and disclosure obligations, unregistered groups like Freedom Vote that are formed with declared generic goals are allowed to transform into election vehicles that primarily support federal candidates during one or more election cycles. , then quietly disappear without any clue as to who funded their campaign-related activities, ”they wrote.

The CREW lawsuit calls on a judge to declare the FEC’s decision “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and against the law”, ordering the commissioners to return to the drawing board. In particular, CREW and the FEC commissioners who wanted to see the case continue are arguing for the disclosure of Freedom Votes backers.

“The failure of the FEC to act, despite conclusive evidence that Freedom Vote broke the law, deprives voters of their legal right to know who gave the money behind Freedom Vote’s political activities,” the president wrote. from CREW, Noah Bookbinder, in a press release. “It’s a signal to black money groups and the people who run them that they can get away with breaking the law, leaving voters in the dark. “

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