The U.S. Supreme Court this week left in place a lower court ruling that expands donor disclosure for advocacy groups that fund independent expenditures. While the full effect of the ruling may not be known for some time, groups in the throes of an election season suddenly have to reconsider their electoral spending plans and fundraising practices, and donors to politically active 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations or 501(c)(6) business leagues have to account for an increased risk that their donations will be publicly disclosed.

What Does the Ruling Do?

Groups that are not registered with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as campaign committees, party committees, or PACs are nonetheless required to file reports if they make an expenditure of more than $250 that expressly supports or opposes a federal candidate. These “independent expenditure” reports must itemize disbursements to each vendor involved in the creation and distribution of an ad (or other public communication), and identify the election involved and whether the organization supports or opposes the featured candidate.

In addition, a long-standing FEC rule requires that these reports identify donors who gave more than $200 to the organization in the calendar year for the purpose of funding the particular ad that is being reported. As a practical matter, donors seldom know that their funds will be used to pay for a specific ad, and thus donors have rarely been disclosed.

The district court struck down the FEC donor-disclosure rule, concluding that it applied the statutory disclosure requirement too narrowly. The court concluded that independent expenditure reports filed by groups that are not registered political committees must identify all donors who (1) give to the organization for the purpose of influencing a federal election, or (2) give for the purpose of funding the group’s independent expenditures, whether tied to a specific ad or not. The court stressed, however, that contributors to an organization’s “general programs” need not be identified.

The court deferred the effective date of the ruling for 45 days, giving the FEC time to adopt a new donor disclosure rule. That period came and went with no new rule or interpretive guidance. Crossroads GPS, which intervened in the case, has appealed the ruling to the D.C. Circuit.


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With an election year just weeks away, there are steps you can take now to boost the effectiveness of your government affairs program, and help your organization and its principals avoid legal trouble. This is a particularly good time to fill the coffers of your PAC, develop a political contribution plan for next year,

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

By White House/Chuck Kennedy (White House (P090612CK-0875)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Thinking about sponsoring or hosting an event at the presidential nominating conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia?  Or considering giving free items to attendees?

Venable’s client alert summarizes recent guidance on convention events from the House and Senate ethics committees,

Interested in what it takes to set up a federal Super PAC? Take a look at Venable’s recently released white paper summarizing the key rules of the road, including:

  • Steps for creating a federal Super PAC
  • Avoiding illegal coordination with candidates
  • FEC and IRS reporting obligations
  • Advertising disclaimers

For those interested in Maryland elections, please

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. 
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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. 
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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

HandcuffsThe U.S. Department of Justice has announced the first criminal prosecution for a violation of federal laws prohibiting outside groups from coordinating their activities with the candidates and campaigns they support.

The six-member Federal Election Commission, which is primarily responsible for interpreting and enforcing federal campaign finance laws, has deadlocked repeatedly over whether to investigate complaints of coordination. But with this announcement, the Justice Department, which may pursue knowing and willful violations of the same laws, has stepped into the breach.

In the plea agreement, a Virginia-based political consultant admitted serving as campaign manager for a U.S. candidate for Congress, while at the same time operating a Super PAC that spent $325,000 on ads attacking that candidate’s opponent. No one else has been charged in the case. Interestingly, there is no indication in the charging documents that the candidate knew about the work the consultant was doing for the Super PAC. However, the coordination rules apply not just to candidates, but also to their staff, and in some circumstances, their volunteers.  Violations may be established even if the candidate is unaware of a representative’s unlawful activity. 
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mynameisThe Washington Examiner recently wrote about the art of naming a PAC, pointing out that the name must “balance patriotic with practical considerations.” The Examiner talked about making sure the name is not too long if the PAC will have to include “paid for by” statements on its ads. But there are some other legal considerations as well. Let’s look at some of the FEC’s naming rules.

If the PAC is a connected PAC, meaning it is supported by a company, union, nonprofit, or trade or professional association, then it must include the full name of the connected organization. We have seen registrations rejected by the FEC for failing to include “Inc.” or “Company” if that full legal name of the entity includes those signifiers. Thus, Widget Manufacturing Company of Our Town, Inc. must include all of those words in the name of the PAC. That name must appear in all legal disclaimers.


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