Federal Appeals Court Upholds Contribution Ban on Government Contractors

By EFF (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the Federal Election Campaign Act’s long-standing ban on contributions from federal government contractors to federal candidates and parties. We have followed the case since the District Court’s decision in 2012.

The ban has been in a place since 1940. Pointing to a history of federal and state corruption scandals involving government contracts, the court ruled that the ban continues to further the government’s interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption and removes political pressure on government employees. Some of the most important things about the ruling for government contractors are:  Continue Reading

Too Close for Comfort? The IRS Gives New Guidance on 501(c)(3)s and Working with Candidates

MeeTtheCandidatesAlthough it appears that rules governing the political activities of 501(c)(4) organizations will be some time in coming, the IRS recently provided some new insights into how 501(c)(3) organizations can – and cannot – interact with the political world.  In an adverse determination publicly released earlier this month, the IRS looked closely at how a 501(c)(3) organization can engage in educational activities, like conventions and conferences, that involve candidates who may identify with a particular political party.

In general, organizations recognized as exempt from federal income tax under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code cannot engage in what is called “political campaign intervention.”  This requirement is absolute:  as a condition of getting (c)(3) status, organizations essentially cannot be too politically partisan in nature.  For tax purposes, political campaign intervention includes any communications or activities that support or oppose one or more candidates for public office.  This includes the more clear-cut activities, like running an ad opposing a candidate or making endorsements in a particular race.  But it also can include other activities where the organization uses its resources to give one candidate an advantage over another.

In this determination, the IRS addressed one of these less obvious situations.  Here, the organization applying for recognition as a 501(c)(3) told the IRS it planned to hold symposiums of “thinkers, statesmen and opinion leaders” as its primary activity.  The organization anticipated that elected politicians, as well as candidates in the 2012 presidential race about to compete in a key primary, would be in attendance and would be speakers.  An agenda for the symposium submitted by the organization to the IRS showed that all political speakers invited were affiliated with one particular party; it also included a “Meet the Candidates” event, for attendees paying an additional fee.

In planning its symposium, the organization also internally discussed using contacts within the political party to get speakers and to increase attendance, targeting county party groups for attendees, coordinating with local college and high school groups associated with the party for events, and keeping the state party chair up to date and involved in decisions.  Continue Reading

Super PAC or Super Fraud: What to do when a super PAC raises money off a candidate’s name but doesn’t actually do anything to support the candidate

Some candidates have a cozy relationship with super PACs that support them (as close as they can, given rules about coordination). Others are surprised and excited when a super PAC shows up to help out. But sometimes a super PAC raises money using a candidate’s name or picture, but doesn’t do much to help the candidate. In those cases, the candidate may be concerned the super PAC is taking donations that might otherwise go directly to the campaign or to super PACs that are actively supporting the candidate. 2013 Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli faced such a situation and decided to sue over it.

The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court, was not based on any campaign finance laws, but on the federal Lanham Act, which is a false advertising statute, and state law claims of false advertising, breach of contract, and unauthorized use of Mr. Cuccinelli’s name and picture. Mr. Cuccinelli sued not only the super PAC, but also all of the individuals associated with the super PAC. The case settled on interesting terms.

First, the Super PAC and its principals agreed to pay Mr. Cuccinelli $85,000. They also agreed to turn over their solicitation lists to Mr. Cuccinelli so he can use them either to raise money for future campaigns or to rent the lists to others. The Super PAC and the company that ran it will also undertake certain “best practices” in future campaigns. These include honoring a request from a candidate to stop using the candidate’s name or picture and maintaining contact information on their website. These terms make clear they apply to other PACs that are clients of the defendant’s company.  In this respect, Mr. Cuccinelli may have helped future candidates that find themselves in his spot.  Continue Reading

Virginia Tightens the Reins: Major Lobbying and Gift Law Changes to Take Effect in 2016

Earlier this month, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a new bill making significant changes to Virginia’s lobbying and gift laws. The critical changes made by this bill, Senate Bill No. 1424, will become effective on January 1, 2016. Many of the revisions focus on gift reform, but the bill also contains important changes affecting lobbying as well as pay-to-play compliance.  Continue Reading

Appeals Court Upholds Hawaii Corporate Disclosure Rules and Pay-to-Play Law

Last week the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld key provisions of Hawaii’s campaign finance laws requiring a for-profit company making campaign contributions and expenditures to register as a political committee, and prohibiting government contractors from contributing to state legislators and candidates.

Broad Implications for Companies and Nonprofits Participating in Hawaii Elections

Hawaii requires entities to register and report as noncandidate committees when they have “the purpose of making or receiving contributions, making expenditures, or incurring financial obligations to influence [elections] over $1,000 in the aggregate for an election cycle.”  A-1 A-lectrician, a for-profit corporation that in 2010 contributed over $50,000 to Hawaii candidates and party committees, and spent more than $6,000 on political advertisements, challenged these requirements.  It argued that registration and reporting should only be required of entities with “the primary purpose” of political activity rather than an organization that has “the purpose” to engage in political activity.

The Ninth Circuit rejected A-1’s argument, reasoning that the $1,000 threshold ensures that the reporting and disclosure requirements will not apply to organizations engaged in only “incidental” political activity.  Large organizations, the court noted, may spend only 1% of their funds on political activity and have many other important purposes – but this small percentage may amount to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. As the court glosses over, however, there is a big difference between making hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions and contributing just over $1,000, which is the threshold for registration.

This ruling has broad implications for any company or nonprofit making contributions or expenditures in Hawaii. Although the court left open the possibility that the law may be unconstitutional as applied to an organization engaged in less political activity than A-1, many companies and nonprofits face burdensome state disclosure requirements for relatively modest amounts of political spending. In addition to registering, such companies or nonprofits must file reports disclosing contributions received, contributions made to candidates, political expenditures made, and other financial information.

Hawaii’s Pay-to-Play Law Also Upheld

A-1 also challenged Hawaii’s pay-to-play law on the basis that it prohibits a contractor from contributing to legislators or candidates who will neither award nor oversee state contracts. The court rejected this argument, reasoning that the legislature as a whole deals with procurement matters and that it would be very difficult for a contractor to determine whether a particular officeholder or candidate will become involved in a contract award or oversight process.

This is the second Federal appeals court to uphold contribution restrictions on government contractors, commonly known as pay-to-play laws.  While judicial rulings after Citizens United have tended to loosen restrictions on campaign finance laws, legal challenges to state pay-to-play laws have not fared well.  As such, pay-to-play laws continue to pose compliance challenges for companies that do business with government agencies and for their politically-active officers, directors, and other principals who may also be subject to these laws.

Maryland Changes Rules Again on Political Contribution Disclosure by Government Contractors; Lobbyist-Employers Also Affected

Following a major rewrite last year of its “pay-to-play” disclosure rules, Maryland has made further changes that expand the obligations of state and local government contractors to report their political contributions, and those of their subsidiaries, officers, directors, partners, and PACs. Now, in addition to reporting direct contributions to candidates, contractors will also have to disclose contributions made to independent expenditure groups and political parties that are “for the benefit” of covered candidates. The new law also changes reporting deadlines, and clarifies that companies holding state or local contracts awarded prior to January 1 must file disclosure reports until performance is complete.

The contribution disclosure requirements for lobbyist-employers will also change so that the two disclosure regimes mirror one another.

These new changes take effect on June 1, 2015, just five months after the last round of changes and the rollout of a new online reporting system.

Key features of the new law include…

First Quarter LD-2 Reports Deadline Approaching

deadlineFirst quarter lobbying disclosure reports are due on Monday, April 20. This report, the LD-2, is where organizations report their expenses for federal lobbying efforts. The first quarter of a year is often a good time to evaluate your organization’s recordkeeping and processes for filling out the report and to determine what changes may need to be made. Keep in mind these key aspects of preparing the report:  Continue Reading

Welcoming a New Member of the Team

McConnellWe would like to welcome Julie McConnell to our political law team at Venable. Julie served as Assistant General Counsel in the Enforcement Division of the Federal Election Commission, and most recently in the Inspector General’s office at the Department of Justice. Julie has significant experience with government investigations involving high-level misconduct, bribery and illegal gratuities, and violations of federal ethics and campaign finance laws.

Watch Our New Compliance Webinar

We recently hosted a webinar on political compliance in the new election cycle. With the first criminal prosecution of a coordination case, changes in state ethics laws, and new disclosure requirements, we provided information you need to engage in political activities while staying compliant.

The slides are also available, and the following publications may be of help as well:

The Big No: Reimbursing Contributions

moneyhandsOver the last few years, the courts have loosened campaign finance laws and the agency charged with enforcing them is frequently gridlocked. However, one campaign finance violation that can still get you in big trouble is reimbursing contributions, particularly when the reimbursing is done by a corporation.

In settling a recent enforcement matter involving the Fiesta Bowl, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) obtained fines of nearly $100,000 from the corporation and the CEO and restitution by the CEO of over $60,000. A parallel criminal case resulted in guilty pleas that landed the former CEO in jail for eight months, community service for one executive, and two years of probation for another (who would have also faced a $15,000 penalty from the FEC, but she was able to demonstrate an inability to pay).

The case is not really new – the settlements occurred in 2012 and 2013 – and the FEC has yet to release the documents on its website, but the organization that filed the complaint with the FEC made them available to the public. The documents show a scheme that the FEC says included:

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