Published on Monday, June 19, 2000 in the Boston Globe
Ralph Nader In Court Today In Bid To Halt Corporate-Sponsorship of 2000 Presidential Debates
by Jill Zuckman
WASHINGTON - Attempting to derail the fall's presidential debates, Ralph Nader will file a complaint in Boston's US District Court today, charging that the Federal Election Commission is violating the law by allowing corporations to underwrite an important aspect of the presidential campaign.
Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, Sun Microsystems, Yahoo, 3Com, and other businesses are helping pay for the fall debates, the first of which will take place in Boston.
However, since 1907, federal law has prohibited corporations from contributing financially to candidates for Congress and president. Even so, the FEC issued regulations making an exception for corporations to fund the debates through the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit corporation that has run the candidate forums the last three presidential elections.
Nader, a Green Party presidential candidate, is asking the court for an injunction to invalidate the FEC regulations, an injunction he hopes will ultimately force the debate commission to return all of its corporate contributions.
''They couldn't write that check for Bush directly and they couldn't write that check for Gore directly, but they're allowed to write a check to a collaborative Bush-Gore effort to advance their own campaigns and to exclude competitors to advance their own campaigns,'' Nader said in an interview. ''It's like a double-header. They get tremendous media out of this.''
The first debate, between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush, is scheduled to take place Oct. 3 at the John F. Kennedy Library. Nader and other candidates for president, such as Patrick J. Buchanan of the Reform Party, have been excluded.
A second debate is scheduled at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a third will take place at Washington University in St. Louis.
The major party vice presidential candidates will square off at Centre College in Danville, Ky.
Whether Nader will be successful at derailing the debates remains to be seen. A similar lawsuit was filed in New York by the Libertarian Party. At the Commission on Presidential Debates, executive director Janet H. Brown called the lawsuit ''old news.''
''We've been challenged every cycle and our position has prevailed every cycle,'' said Brown.
Attorneys for Nader say they will succeed where others have failed because they are sticking to a narrow but clear point of law. Also, they point out that when Ross Perot challenged the debates in 1996, the US Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington said the claim against the FEC regulations was not properly brought and a decision on the merits would have to be left for another day.
The Nader legal team also hopes to bolster its case by pointing to a 1980 warning by the FEC to the League of Women Voters. Then, the FEC said the League could not use corporate donations to put on the presidential debates unless they included every candidate for president.
Gregory Luke, a lawyer for Nader and the Green Party at the National Voting Rights Institute in Cambridge, said corporate money should be excised from the debates because it gives corporations undue influence over the candidates.
''We're kidding ourselves if we think industries that give all this money to support major party candidates don't have a disproportionate say in shaping the laws that affect us all,'' said Luke.
Scott P. Lewis, an attorney at Palmer and Dodge who is also representing Nader, likened the debates to a ''Bud bowl,'' referring to a publicity campaign for Anheuser-Busch's top product, Budweiser beer.
But Brown said the only thing corporate sponsors receive for their donations is a few tickets to sit in the audience and watch the debates as they take place.
''No donor who contributes to us has anything to do with the debates themselves, the format, the decision on candidate participation, or any other substantive issue,'' said Brown. She also said the amount of the contributions is still being negotiated, although the lawsuit puts the price tag in the millions of dollars.
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