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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.

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, and discusses both new and old ways that the national parties and the host cities are raising money to pay for the conventions.

Our Political Law Group has extensive experience advising companies, trade associations, and nonprofits in navigating the gift rules that apply to convention events, and making political contributions.

 

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 also see our white paper summarizing the rules of the road for setting up and operating Maryland Super PACs.

With extensive experience advising federal, state, and local Super PACs and their donors, Venable’s Political Law Practice Group is ready to assist with all of your Super PAC legal needs in the 2016 election cycle and beyond.

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 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

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.”

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.  Continue Reading Justice Department Brings First Criminal Case for Campaign, Super PAC Coordination

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.

Continue Reading Naming Your PAC

As it has done every two years since the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act indexed contribution limits for inflation, the FEC has announced revised contribution limits for the 2016 election cycle. In addition to the traditional limits for candidates, PACs, and parties, the FEC also set the indexed limit for the new special accounts created at the end of 2014 for the national political parties. This first chart shows the limits for individual and PAC contributions to candidates, PACs, and state and local party committees:

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This next chart shows the amounts that an individual may give to the national party committees. The general fund is the account that has always existed, while the other funds are the new accounts Congress created in 2014 to help the parties to defray certain costs: Continue Reading More to Give: FEC Raises Contribution Limits

The Maryland legislature overhauled the state’s campaign finance law almost two years ago, but many of the key provisions did not take effect until January 1, 2015. These changes significantly affect state government contractors by introducing a new electronic registration system overseen by the State Board of Elections, and requiring electronic reporting of contributions made by the contractor, as well as by its PAC and subsidiaries, and its officers, directors, and partners.

The new law also increases the limits on contributions by individuals and business entities, and compels politically active nonprofits to register and disclose their donors. Stiff penalties may be imposed on nonprofits that knowingly and willfully fail to file registration notices or reports. Also, the State Board of Elections now has the power to issue civil citations for strict liability offenses, such as failing to keep accurate books and records.

To read the full article, please continue reading on our website.