Parties Play Politics With FEC Complaints

by Nathan L. Gonzales August 28, 2015 · 10:17 AM EDT

Ethics problems can be serious trouble for any politician, but party strategists often use Federal Election Committee complaints to play games with the opposition, because the allegation has a slim chance of being ruled on before Election Day.

“Everyone knows both sides file complaints to get press hits,” one campaign strategist said anonymously in order to speak candidly.

For example, in July a former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee communications director now with an outside group, American Democracy Legal Fund, filed an FEC complaint concerning compensation GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin received after his 2010 race.

Subsequently, Roll Call wrote a story, “Group Files FEC Complaint Against Johnson.” And a couple of days later, the DSCC sent out an email with the subject line, “Busted: FEC Complaint Filed Against Ron Johnson For Shady Corporate Fundraising Scheme,” that linked to the story.

Whether the accusation is true is beside the point. The accusers know simply filing a complaint will generate media attention and cast doubt onto the accused.

“The standards for filing a complaint are pretty low,” said FEC Chairwoman Ann Ravel. “Any person may file a complaint if he or she believes a violation of the federal election campaign laws or Commission regulations has occurred or is about to occur.”

“The complaint must simply be in writing, signed, sworn and notarized,” Ravel continued, “The fact that an entity or person has been designated a ‘respondent’ when a complaint is filed does not mean that the Commission has made a finding or otherwise believes that a violation has occurred or is about to occur.”

Nevertheless, party operatives have a way of making accusations sound very serious.

Back in 2011, the Missouri Republican Party filed an FEC complaint against Democrat Claire McCaskill concerning corrections to her 2006 reports. In a subsequent release, the NRSC said the senator “now faces a formal ethics complaint.”

In 2010, Democrats tried to weaken the field of GOP challengers to Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada. “Democrats file federal complaint against Sue Lowden over campaign bus,” according to a headline in the Las Vegas Sun. Republicans returned the favor in 2014 with an FEC complaint against Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and her campaign’s use of a bus against Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.

House Democrats got creative recently with an attack against GOP Rep. Martha McSally in Arizona’s 2nd District.

“Tucson resident files FEC complaint against McSally,” according to the NBC affiliate in Phoenix. That headline looks better than “Democratic Group Attacks a Republican.”

“It alerts the local press and helps build a narrative,” the strategist said of using FEC filings to attack opponents. “A complaint is the only way anyone is going to write about it.”

But FEC complaints serve more of a purpose than just generating a negative headline, according to the partisan source. They can change candidates’ behavior, cause problems with the campaign or potentially lead to other stories.

The Ohio Democratic Party started filing FEC complaints against Republican state Treasurer Josh Mandel in June 2011, a year-and-a-half before Election Day. In February 2012, Mandel was “hit with his second FEC complaint,” according to the state party, which meant someone filled out some paperwork.

Democrats used the complaints to put Mandel on the defensive, even suggesting his campaign was under investigation by the FBI. The discussion prompted the Republican to return more than $100,000 in contributions from employees at the company in question.

But Mandel wasn’t under FBI investigation, the company was. And the FEC found no reason to believe he was guilty of the Democrats’ claims. That ruling came in May 2013, six months after Mandel lost to Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, 51-45 percent.

Both parties know the polarized and sometimes understaffed FEC is a slow-moving body, usually too slow to be relevant in the election at hand. Critics of New Hampshire Republican Frank C. Guinta filed complaints in August and December of 2010. The FEC decided to investigate in August 2011, after he was elected to the House, but didn’t reach a conciliation agreement with the congressman until this year. In total, Guinta lost a race and won two races in the time it took the commission to reach a conclusion.

Four out of six commissioners must find “reason to believe” in order to open an investigation, but neither party is allowed to have a majority of seated commissioners, so consensus can be difficult.

An attorney at the Campaign Legal Center criticized one commissioner for playing politics with the process and delaying on complaints directed at Republicans. But all complaints must be dealt with in some manner within five years, whether it is dismissal, investigation, or entering into a conciliation agreement to settle the case. [You can read Goodman's response here.]

But the recent complaints could signal a shift from how the parties have approached complaints in the past.

“A general truce was in place for a number of years as both parties realized it wasn’t in their interest,” explained veteran campaign finance attorney Michael Toner, who is also a former FEC chairman, about the cost and burden of pursuing and defending complaints. “That truce is breaking down.”

The source believes the creation of the American Democracy Legal Fund is a sign that filing FEC complaints could become an establishment-endorsed tactic in campaigns.

“That would up the ante,” Toner said.

As the campaign season starts to heat up, it’s important for political reporters and those who read or watch their stories to remember the act of filing a complaint with the FEC is only slightly harder than emailing out a press release. And the likelihood that it becomes a campaign issue is small, unless the media trumpets the filing as something of substance.