nomoneyThe Federal Election Commission recently concluded an investigation into contributions from a Canadian citizen to a candidate for governor. Why would the FEC investigate a state contribution? Because the ban on contributions from foreign nationals applies not just to federal candidates, but to state and local candidates as well.

The FEC dismissed the case because the state candidate did not know the contributions were illegal. In fact, he had checked with state election officials, who told him there was no issue under state law. There wasn’t, but there was an issue under federal law.

Foreign nationals are individuals who are not U.S. citizens or non-citizens who do not have permanent resident (i.e., green card) status, as well as any companies incorporated, organized, or located abroad. U.S. citizens living in other countries are permitted to contribute.

Continue Reading Don’t Forget: Recent FEC Case Is a Reminder That Federal Law Prohibits Contributions at the State and Local Levels Too

As we get closer and closer to the elections, candidates will be working harder and harder to raise money. One tried and true method is the fundraiser: an individual agrees to put together an event where his or her closest friends will make substantial contributions to the candidate, attend a breakfast, lunch, cocktails, or dinner, meet the candidate, and, if they contribute enough, get a picture with the candidate. While this may seem simple and straightforward, companies often get into trouble when they use their corporate resources to help put on fundraisers.

The largest fine in FEC history ($3.8 million) came as a result of corporate facilitation back in 2006. Others have followed. The FEC just unveiled an enforcement case involving a Nevada architectural firm that paid a substantial fine for using corporate resources to hold a fundraiser. The settlement provides a good example of how not to fundraise for federal candidates.  Continue Reading Hosting Fundraisers: One Company’s Example of How Not to Do it

presentThe Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has proposed revisions to the gift rules for executive branch employees. Although some of the proposed changes are meant to bring clarity without changing the rules’ substance, several changes will result in new restrictions on the “gifts” that flow from day-to-day interactions companies and associations have with officials. Overall, the changes do little to bring further clarity, and do a lot to cloud the waters of when certain gifts are permissible.

It is important to remember that a gift is broadly defined to include anything of value. Most entities with any business or policy issue before an agency are considered prohibited sources, and may not give any gifts unless an exemption applies. Thus, attendance at events, food and drink, attendance at receptions, and commemorative plaques are all considered to be gifts subject to restrictions on whether executive branch employees may accept them.  Continue Reading The Office of Government Ethics Proposes Changes to the Gift Rules: How the Changes Could Limit Interaction With Government Officials

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 Federal Appeals Court Upholds Contribution Ban on Government Contractors

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.

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…

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:

Continue Reading The Big No: Reimbursing Contributions

Ramping Up for the 2016 Cycle Make Compliance a Priority for LobbyingThursday, March 26, 2015
1:30 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. ET – Webinar

The Justice Department recently announced its first criminal prosecution for coordination. States like Virginia are revamping their ethics laws and California recently imposed new restrictions on lobbyists. Although the IRS has yet to issue regulations for 501(c)(4)s, many states have created new disclosure requirements for politically active nonprofit groups. Maryland has imposed tough new disclosure requirements on state contractors that make campaign contributions.  Continue Reading Please Join Us: WEBINAR – Ramping up for the 2016 Cycle: Make Compliance a Priority for Lobbying and Political Activity

b2tfIn January 2010 –  as almost everyone already knows by now – the Supreme Court struck down major portions of campaign finance laws, allowing corporations to make independent expenditures in support of, or opposition to, candidates for federal office. Super PACs that could accept unlimited individual and corporate contributions soon followed based on lower court decisions.

Interestingly, the FEC never changed its rules to implement the Court’s decision. Pick up the Code of Federal Regulations from 2011, 2012, 2013, or 2014 and you will find very clear statements that corporations may not make independent expenditures or electioneering communications.

At long last, in October of last year, the FEC got around to making some changes to its regulations to account for Citizens United. They became effective on January 27, 2015, but the FEC just released the notice setting the effective date. You can now read in the regulations something that has been true for five years: “A corporation or labor organization may make independent expenditures or electioneering communications.”

California’s ethics watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission, adopted a new rule that prohibits lobbyists from hosting fundraisers in their homes. This rule implements legislation passed after a lobbyist was fined for hosting what the LA Times called “lavish fundraisers” featuring “wine, liquor, and cigars,” in his home. Lobbyists in California are prohibited from making campaign contributions, but the statute previously exempted from the definition of a “contribution” the use of one’s home for a campaign event, along with$500 for food and drink. The legislation eliminated this exemption, providing that any “payment made by a lobbyist or a cohabitant of a lobbyist for costs related to a fundraising event held at the home of the lobbyist, including the value of the use of the home as a fundraising event venue,” is now a contribution.

Continue Reading Not Homeward Bound: California Lobbyists Barred from Hosting Fundraisers in their Homes