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The Federal Election Commission has fined a federal contractor for making $200,000 in contributions to a Super PAC that supported a candidate in the 2016 presidential election. This is the first time the FEC has fined a government contractor for contributing to a Super PAC.

Federal contractors are prohibited from making contributions to federal candidates and PACs, though there has been debate since the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United as to whether government contractors have the same constitutional right as other corporations to make independent expenditures – or to contribute to Super PACs that do the same.

According to settlement documents released last week, a Boston-based construction company made two $100,000 contributions to a pro-Hillary Clinton Super PAC in June and December of 2015, which the Super PAC refunded in June 2016. The refunds were made after a press report disclosed that the company’s portfolio included federal government facilities and that the company had been awarded more than $168 million in federal contracts since 2008. In paying a $34,000 fine, the company acknowledged that at the time it made the Super PAC contributions, it had a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The FEC found no reason to believe that the Super PAC knowingly solicited the contributions at issue.

The fine is a departure from the gridlock that has plagued the six-member Commission in recent years on a number of major issues. It is particularly surprising given the constitutional uncertainty over the right of federal contractors to make Super PAC contributions. Nonetheless, the fine does not settle the constitutional question, which can only be resolved by the courts.

In the last few years, the FEC and the courts have grappled with the federal contractor ban in other contexts. In 2014, the Commission dodged the issue of whether a federal contractor may contribute to a Super PAC by finding that federal contractor status was not attributable to a corporate parent that had made a Super PAC contribution merely because one of its subsidiaries was a government contractor. A federal appeals court in June 2015 upheld the federal contractor ban in a case filed by individual government contractors but did not comment on whether federal contractors may give to Super PACs.

What lessons does this settlement offer for government contractors?

  • Conduct training, and implement policies and procedures. The FEC settlement notes that after discovering the violations, the company implemented new internal controls, policies, and procedures. To avoid similar problems, government contractors should conduct regular training for key personnel, and implement appropriate policies and procedures regarding political activities, including employees’ use of work hours, corporate facilities, and mailing lists in connection with volunteer work on behalf of a campaign. Such training should also cover gifts to public officials and lobbying registration laws.
  • Vet contributions through experienced campaign finance counsel. The FEC settlement also notes that the construction company is now vetting certain political contributions with outside counsel. This is something all corporations should be doing. Even in states and localities that permit corporate contributions, a wide range of special rules may apply, including rules governing which political committees may accept corporate contributions; blackout periods during legislative sessions; restrictions on contributions by lobbying entities and on assistance from individual lobbyists in delivering or suggesting contributions; contribution thresholds for registering the corporation as a political committee; and in a few states, a requirement of board approval. Experienced counsel can also help flag recipient committees that may present reputational problems for the company and identify risks that can accompany the earmarking of a contribution for a particular use.
  • Beware of state and local pay-to-play laws. The risks are even greater for government contractors. Many states and municipalities have pay-to-play laws that prohibit government contractors, as well as their principal owners, officers, and certain employees from making political contributions. Other states require contractors to register and file disclosure reports with state election boards. Violations of pay-to-play laws strike at the bottom line by disqualifying bids and voiding contracts and can cause significant reputational harm.
  • Consider ways to contribute that do not violate the contractor ban. While state and local laws may restrict political contributions from a contractor’s owners, officers, and employees, the executives of a corporate contractor (though not an individual consultant doing work for the federal government) may make personal contributions to federal candidates. A corporate contractor may also form a federal PAC, which may be funded by donations from employees.

Sound political law and pay-to-play compliance policies are essential for government contractors to avoid serious risks. The starting place is a baseline assessment to help identify major risk areas and develop a compliance plan tailored to the company’s objectives and needs. When violations are discovered, it is critical to assess whether the conduct is isolated or systemic, and consider taking prompt, corrective measures to mitigate possible penalties and help reduce reputational harm.