FEC IG Report Leaves Weintraub Unchecked

In February 2017, Cause of Action Institute asked the Inspector General (“IG”) for the Federal Election Commission (“FEC”) to look into statements made by Commissioner Ellen Weintraub.  We recently obtained a copy of the IG’s report on the issue, clearing Commissioner Weintraub of wrongdoing. Learn More

Bob Bauer Agrees With Us About Commissioner Weintraub, But Doesn’t Want to Do Anything About It

Does the rule of law matter and should government officials abide by the ethical obligations that govern them?  Robert Bauer, former White House Counsel for President Obama, answers: “Not so much.”

On Tuesday, in furtherance of its mission to hold our government accountable, Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission (“FEC”) Inspector General (“IG”) and Designated Agency Ethics Officer asking them to investigate whether Commissioner Ellen Weintraub violated government ethics standards when she acted outside her authority as a commissioner while using FEC resources.  Ms. Weintraub issued a statement on FEC letterhead, posted to the FEC website, urging President Trump to provide evidence of his claims about voter fraud during the 2016 elections, and then went on national media outlets to promote that statement.  In our letter, we explained that alleged voter fraud and New Hampshire criminal violations, the two subjects of Ms. Weintraub’s statement, are outside the FEC’s jurisdiction and therefore her advocacy on this matter was an improper use of government property and official time.  We also pointed out that, during the Obama administration, Ms. Weintraub herself had expressly rejected any involvement in questions of voter fraud because such matters were outside the FEC’s jurisdiction.

Commissioner Weintraub responded to our letter by providing a post hoc rationalization that her statement was in some manner geared to determine whether “the expense of these buses [alleged to have been used in the voter fraud] has not been accounted for on any campaign-finance filing.”  Without addressing her prior statement about voter fraud being outside of FEC jurisdiction, she also alleged, without citation to any authority, that her statement about the investigation of voter fraud was proper because it was within her “official duties as a federal election official to comment publicly on any aspect of the integrity of federal elections in the United States.”

Yesterday, former White House Counsel Bauer rode to Ms. Weintraub’s defense with a post on his campaign-finance blog, More Soft Money Hard Law.  Nearly lost among Mr. Bauer’s various defenses of Ms. Weintraub’s behavior is a key concession that vindicates CoA Institute’s letter to the FEC.  As he wrote: “Are Weintraub’s comments directly and squarely within the jurisdiction of the Commission, such that she can take some action in response to the President’s failure to produce the requested evidence?  No[.]”  To anyone who believes in the rule of law—that old-fashioned notion that laws, standards, and rules are to be applied regardless of one’s rank or standing in society—that should have ended the matter.  Ms. Weintraub, in her role as FEC Commissioner, acted outside her authority; applicable ethics rules prohibit officials from using official time and government property in unauthorized conduct; Ms. Weintraub continued her unauthorized conduct; she should accordingly be the subject of an ethics investigation.

But Mr. Bauer demurs.  Instead of describing the governing ethical standards and their application to Ms. Weintraub’s behavior, he claims that, “as a 13-year Commissioner, [Ms. Weintraub] should be free to take notice of any claims that bear on the integrity of elections.”  Of course she is free to “take notice” of such claims; no one has argued otherwise.  The issue, however, is whether she can expend government time and resources in promoting the notice she takes.

The length of an official’s tenure at an agency has no bearing on whether she is permitted to operate outside the statutory authority creating the agency’s jurisdiction.  If Ms. Weintraub felt moved by these issues, she was free to opine in her personal capacity.  But using government property and official time to advance personal views that are—as Mr. Bauer himself admits—outside the FEC’s jurisdiction was improper.

Unable to find a valid basis to defend Ms. Weintraub’s behavior, Mr. Bauer’s only remaining move is to impugn CoA Institute’s motives and methods.

First, the motives.  Apparently unconcerned with Ms. Weintraub’s unethical use of government property and time, Mr. Bauer writes that “Budgets are not balanced on the savings achieved by stopping this level of activity.  There is very little of a principle to be upheld here.”  Although the volume of money used improperly may not be enough to balance a budget, the principle at issue is vital and one that CoA Institute works every day to uphold.  Congress creates federal agencies to accomplish statutory objectives and funds them with the taxpayers’ money.  Public officials are hired and paid solely to accomplish those objectives.  Unfortunately, agencies are notorious for straying beyond their authority, wasting taxpayer resources, interfering with the free market, and undermining the liberties that are Americans’ birthrights.  Mr. Bauer may not care that Ms. Weintraub exceeded her authority, but we do.  Mr. Bauer may not be upset with the unchecked growth of power in the administrative state, but we are.

Mr. Bauer also repeats Ms. Weintraub’s claim that our letter was an effort to silence the commissioner, stating that our aim is to “suppress[] unwanted speech” and our “purpose is clearly to strike back at the Weintraub [sic] for the substance of her comments and have her think twice about repeating them while ‘under investigation.’”  What does Mr. Bauer know about our motives?  Did he interview those who drafted the letter?  Did he even go to our website to look at our mission statement or review the kinds of cases we take on?  Since its inception over five years ago, CoA Institute has existed to provide oversight of federal agencies and hold accountable the officials who exercise so much control over the lives of everyday Americans.  We are firm defenders of the First Amendment, and if Ms. Weintraub had made the same statement in her personal capacity, we would have applauded her right to do so.  But that is not what happened.  In acting in this matter in her official capacity, she exceeded her statutory authority, and for that, she should be held accountable.  We do that for apparent violations of all kinds by government officials, regardless of their political affiliation, including former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

As for methods, Mr. Bauer suggests that CoA Institute’s request for an investigation will cost more money than it will save and thus, if we were really concerned about preserving government resources, we should have remained silent.  As he stated: “But it cannot escape attention that to make its point, the organization urges a remedy that requires throwing real government money away, on an ‘investigation.’  Ms. Weintraub’s statement-and-tweets communication on voter fraud is a bargain compared to the paper and staff time that may be burned in an IG inquiry.”  Here, Mr. Bauer appears unaware of the economic concept of a sunk cost.  Federal tax dollars already are being spent to employ both an IG and Designated Agency Ethics Officer at the FEC, and the precise purpose for which these officials and their offices exist is to administer government ethics rules and oversee investigations into wrongdoing.  Our request that they allocate a portion of their time to determine whether Ms. Weintraub violated her ethical obligations in this matter is thus entirely proper.  These officials exist to investigate misconduct and we are merely bringing to their attention a matter that they should be investigating of their own accord.  And if we’re wrong, which Mr. Bauer does not believe, we’ll post a follow-up, just as we did for former Secretary Vilsack.

Finally, Mr. Bauer’s attempts to justify Ms. Weintraub’s unethical behavior by pointing to President Trump’s use of “Twitter to visit hell on a department store chain that discontinued his daughter’s line of clothing,” is a logical fallacy.  If President Trump’s action is wrong, how does that exonerate Ms. Weintraub?  Far from proving that CoA Institute acted from a partisan agenda rather than from principle, Mr. Bauer’s insinuation is a case of projection.

James Valvo is Counsel & Senior Policy Advisor at Cause of Action Institute.  You can follow him on Twitter at @JamesValvo.

Did FEC Commissioner Misuse Her Position When She Demanded Proof of Trump’s N.H. Voter Fraud Claim?

Washington D.C. – Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) today called for an investigation into whether Federal Election Commission (“FEC”) Commissioner Ellen Weintraub violated federal ethics laws when she demanded President Trump provide evidence of his voter fraud claims in New Hampshire. Commissioner Weintraub used government property and official time to make these statements, and then promoted her statement on the FEC website, social media, and national media outlets.

In its letter, CoA Institute asks the FEC’s Office of Inspector General and Designated Agency Ethics Officer to open an investigation into whether Commissioner Weintraub violated her ethical obligations and to determine whether it is appropriate for the FEC website to continue to host the statement related to voter fraud and New Hampshire criminal violations, both of which concern matters outside the agency’s jurisdiction. Despite its name, the FEC has no authority over voter fraud claims.

CoA Institute Assistant Vice President Lee Steven: “The public must have confidence that federal agency employees are acting within their ethical requirements and that taxpayer dollars are being used for authorized purposes.  Commissioner Weintraub’s behavior threatens the public’s faith in both of these important principals.”

On February 9, 2017, President Trump was reported to have stated that voter fraud in New Hampshire cost him and former Senator Kelly Ayotte electoral victories in that state in November 2016.   In response to that report, Commissioner Weintraub issued a statement calling “upon President Trump to immediately share his evidence with the public and with the appropriate law-enforcement authorities so that his allegations may be investigated promptly and thoroughly.”   Her statement also claimed that the “scheme the President of the United States alleges would constitute thousands of felony criminal offenses under New Hampshire law.” Commissioner Weintraub subsequently appeared on CNN and public radio to discuss her statement.

When asked about her position, Commissioner Weintraub stated that “[a]s a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, I fight every day to build the faith of the American people in our elections. . . .  It’s absolutely my right to raise public questions about another public official’s statements about the integrity of our elections.”   In October 2016, however, Commissioner Weintraub took the exact opposite stance, stating through her Twitter account that voter fraud was beyond FEC jurisdiction. In response to the question “What is the FEC doing abt [sic] recent reports of voter fraud?” she replied, “That’s outside the @FEC’s jurisdiction.  We do campaign finance *only*.  The elections themselves are handled by the states.”

FEC regulations provide that FEC members and employees are covered by the Office of Government Ethics (“OGE”) rules governing the proper use of government property and official time. Under OGE regulations, Commissioner Weintraub may only use FEC property and act in her official capacity for purposes that advance the FEC mission as authorized in law or regulation.

The full letter is available here.

Court Rightly Denies Rep. Van Hollen Request to Rehear Free Speech Case

Supporters of free speech and the First Amendment won a significant victory this week when a federal court denied a last ditch effort by Congressmen (and Senatorial candidate) Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to salvage his campaign finance case.

On January 21, 2016, a DC Circuit panel reversed the District Court for the District of Columbia and upheld a Federal Election Commission (“FEC”) regulation requiring unions and corporations (including nonprofit organizations) to disclose only those contributors who donate for the purpose of funding an election campaign.

Van Hollen had sued the FEC, arguing that such organizations should be required to reveal all donors, not just those that donate for an election. On appeal to the DC Circuit, CoA Institute filed an amicus brief in support of free speech principles. The DC Circuit agreed with the CoA Institute position that the FEC had struck an acceptable balance between disclosure requirements and First Amendment protections.  In so doing, the Court emphasized a number of points made in the CoA Institute brief, particularly the importance of protecting the constitutional rights of contributors to privacy and anonymous speech.

Following the DC Circuit decision, Van Hollen moved the entire DC Circuit to rehear the case (a rehearing en banc).  On September 27, 2016, the full court denied the petition.  Pending a Supreme Court appeal, the DC Circuit decision is now final.

National Law Journal: Group Wants Justices to Lift Limits on Political Giving

Group Wants Justices to Lift Limits on Political Giving

By Marcia Coyle      July 17, 2013

For its first brief in the U.S. Supreme Court, the Cause of Action Institute picked a controversial cause: an end to certain limits on individual contributions to federal candidates, political action committees and political party committees.

McCutcheon and Republican National Committee v. Federal Election Commission offers the Supreme Court an another opportunity to deregulate money in elections following its much criticized ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010. The justices will hear arguments in the case this fall.

The Cause of Action Institute, which describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan government-accountability organization “that fights to protect economic opportunity when federal regulations, spending and cronyism threaten it,” has joined the legal fight with an amicus brief supporting challengers Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee (RNC).

“This is their first Supreme Court brief, but it’s right down their alley,” said Barnaby Zall of Weinberg, Jacobs & Tolani in Rockville, Md., counsel of record on the amicus brief. “They are an organization focused on government accountability and they work mainly with the [Freedom of Information Act]. They understand disclosure and rules. They looked at this issue as combining lots of issues that affected them.”

Under federal campaign finance laws, there are two types of limits on political contributions by individuals. Base limits restrict the amount an individual may contribute to a particular candidate committee ($2,600 per election); national party committee ($32,400 per calendar year); state, district and local party committee ($10,000 per calendar year (combined limit)); and political action committee (PAC) ($5,000 per calendar year). Aggregate limits restrict the total contributions that individuals may make in a biennial—two-year—election cycle.

McCutcheon and the RNC urge the justices to apply the most searching scrutiny—strict scrutiny—to those biennial limits and find that the limits violate the First Amendment. Under the aggregate limits, individuals may contribute $48,600 to candidate committees and $74,600 to non-candidate committees, of which no more than $48,600 may go to non-national party committees (state, district and local party committees (combined) and PACs).

The amicus brief by Cause of Action Institute walks the justices through the last 40 years of changes in the campaign spending and disclosure environment. Those changes, it argues, undercut the original rationale for the aggregate limits.

“In an era in which parties and campaigns compete not only with other like entities, but also with independent voices armed with the latest technology and an almost limitless ability to uncover, analyze and publish contributor information, does the rationale for the current aggregate limits survive?” the brief asks.

The rationale for the limits, according to Congress in 1974, was to prevent circumvention of the limits on individual contributions. As the Supreme Court said in its landmark campaign finance ruling, Buckley v. Valeo: “Congress was surely entitled to conclude that disclosure was only a partial measure, and that contribution ceilings were a necessary legislative concomitant to deal with the reality or appearance of corruption inherent in a system permitting unlimited financial contributions, even when the identities of the contributors and the amounts of their contributions are fully disclosed.”

But what was true of disclosure in 1974 is not true today, the institute posits in one of two key arguments.

“ ‘Fully disclosed,’ in 1974, meant buried in a mountain of paper filings” in a few offices, according to the institute, with little public access.

“Today, there are effective and efficient public and private alternatives, all designed to disclose and publicize any evasions of the contribution limit,” the brief argues. “The Justice Department, the media, and private organizations all use these technologies to monitor, in real-time, campaigns and donors, and release the results on the Internet free of charge, in formats expressly designed to be used by relatively unsophisticated analysts and observers.”

That difference between today and 40 years ago, the brief adds, demonstrates that the aggregate limits are no longer tailored to the problem that Congress was addressing.

And then there is Citizens United. That 5-4 decision lifting the ban on corporate and union independent spending, along with other court decisions, has created alternative methods for individuals to speak during campaigns, the institute says. That new freedom to speak has removed the major incentive to circumvent individual contribution limits.

“Those alternative means are readily available to cautious donors now,” the brief explains. “These lawful, compliant expenditures can be made by one speaker or in conjunction with others.”

The effect of the limits today is “to punish those few donors who want to support more candidates directly than the aggregate limits permit. Thus the aggregate limits are simply another attempt to prevent persons of wealth (or those who seek to promote challengers or innovative candidates) from associating in the manner they choose.”

Daniel Epstein, the institute’s executive director and former investigative counsel for the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the aggregate limits do not protect against the most serious type of political corruption today—so-called dark money contributions for which the identity of the donor does not have to be disclosed.

“We don’t usually write amicus briefs,” Epstein said. “Most of our litigation is directly representing clients. The reason we were motivated to work with Zall is he is obviously an election law expert and we tend to be free market. You want a marketplace of ideas not just in terms of economic transactions but in terms of speech as well. One of the things we basically argue is that the contribution limits are both over-inclusive and under-inclusive. It would have a potential limit on the kinds of discussions that we viewed as important. Minority groups, bloggers and others might be adversely affected by the limits.”

The ability of someone who wants to violate the law has diminished substantially, according to Zall. “That is recognized by the Department of Justice and others, but the interpretations of the law have not changed” he said, adding that the institute’s brief brings “a realization that the old interpretations don’t work in the new environment. What they end up doing is causing more problems than they would solve.”



Amicus Brief, McCutcheon v. FEC

McCutcheon v. FEC amicus brief



Who will heed the call of accountability?

HHS Timeline_Final-01

This week, Cause of Action filed an FEC complaint revealing the Democratic National Committee’s violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) in a potential attempt to hide its reimbursement for Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius’ Hatch Act violation.

At a Human Rights Campaign Gala in February 2012, speaking in her official capacity, Secretary Sebelius campaigned for the election of Walter Dalton as Governor of North Carolina and of Barack Obama as President of the United States – a violation of federal law.  In attempting to belatedly “fix” her Hatch Act violation, Secretary Sebelius received reimbursement from the DNC for the cost of her attendance at the Gala, and five months later (and only at the behest of the Office of Special Counsel) those of HHS staffer AJ Pearlman, who supported Sebelius at the event.  However, the DNC failed to properly file these reimbursements under FECA, another breach of the law.

Cause of Action further found that during Sebelius’ effort to avoid responsibility for her Hatch Act violation, she retroactively reclassified her speech at the HRC Gala as a political instead of an official event. Securing reimbursement from the DNC for the event in an attempt to pretend the abuse never happened was enough to convince the President that no discipline was necessary in Sebelius’ case. Secretary Sebelius escaped the most high-profile Hatch Act violation in history completely unscathed.

But that’s not the end of the story. Sebelius’ classification of the event as political means that AJ Pearlman now stands in violation of the Hatch Act as well. As a government employee, Pearlman cannot participate in political events on work time.  Once Sebelius reclassified her speech as political, the DNC chose to reimburse HHS for Pearlman’s expenses as well. Pearlman, who had prepared Sebelius for the event and was in attendance with her, is now in violation of the Hatch Act, an offense punishable by firing, as her actions were done on the taxpayers’ dime.

The DNC violated FECA as it scrambled to fix Sebelius’ mistake.

Pearlman’s career has been jeopardized as a result of the law Sebelius broke.

When will Secretary Sebelius take responsibility for her own actions?

When will the OSC properly investigate these new allegations of Hatch Act violations?

Will the new revelations Cause of Action has brought to light about Sebelius’ corruption convince the President to finally ask her to accept the consequences of her actions?

We filed complaints this week with the Federal Election Commission against the DNC and with the OSC concerning AJ Pearlman.  Will these agencies heed the call of accountability?