After nearly six years of stalling by the federal authority that oversees elections, a government ethics watchdog has filed a "historic" lawsuit against a right-wing nonprofit aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, alleging that the group has violated campaign finance laws and should be required to register as a political committee, which would mean disclosing its deep-pocketed donors.
"We're committed to open and transparent elections where everyone is following the rules."
—Noah Bookbinder, CREW
With support (pdf) from Ellen L. Weintraub, the sole Democrat on the Federal Election Commission (FEC)—which has neglected to act on a formal complaint filed in 2012—Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW) on Monday sued the American Action Network (AAN) to challenge the group's nonprofit status.
The court told the Federal Election Commission twice to enforce the law. It still hasn’t, so we’re directly suing the dark money group that broke the law.https://t.co/GsrooDQaWd
— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) April 24, 2018
"We asked the FEC to enforce important laws restricting secret political spending, and because the agency will not act, the only way to address this crucial issue for our democracy is for us to step in ourselves," said CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder. "We're committed to open and transparent elections where everyone is following the rules—even if too many FEC commissioners are not."
Under federal law, 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations such as AAN can engage in political activity—including lobbying lawmakers and launching campaigns to support or oppose candidates for elected office—as long as it is not the group's "primary activity."
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Pointing to the millions of dollars AAN has poured into promoting Republican candidates in recent races, CREW has spent years demanding that the FEC take action—and on March 20, U.S. District Court Judge Christopher R. Cooper issued a similar order, giving the commission a 30-day deadline.
On the eve of the FEC's failure to meet that deadline, Weintraub issued a statement urging CREW to utilize a federal provision that she said "has never been fully utilized," but "allows complainants to sue respondents directly when the Federal Election Commission fails to enforce the law itself."
"Fire alarms are sometimes housed in boxes labeled 'Break glass in case of emergency.' The Federal Election Campaign Act has such a box," Weintraub noted last week. "I'm breaking the glass."
While AAN dismissed the lawsuit as "frivilous" in a statement to Politico, Weintraub posited that it "holds real promise of shining a bright light on a significant source of dark money."
"Over a difficult and frustrating decade at the commission, I have seen colleagues with a deep ideological commitment to impeding this country's campaign-finance laws erode the public's right to free, fair, and transparent elections," she added. "It's time to break the glass and let this matter move forward unimpeded by commissioners who have fought every step of the way to keep dark money dark."