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Is Speaker Pelosi Violating Campaign Finance Laws?

Did the speaker encourage illegal contact between the Democratic Party and outside "independent" groups to facilitate ad expenditures?

by
Richard Pollock

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October 29, 2010 - 12:23 am
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For months, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House members were privately and publicly fuming about the absence of liberal TV and radio ads by third-party groups in support of Democratic candidates.  From their point of view, all sorts of groups were AWOL on the media front — ranging from environmental and health groups, to women groups and unions.

Things reportedly came to a head in mid-September when endangered Democrats in two private House caucus meetings pilloried liberal advocacy groups with the speaker in attendance. Their aides took notes and reportedly began calling in threats to the activist groups: go on the air or suffer the consequences.

Throughout September insider media outlets such as Roll Call and Politico chronicled the high drama that went on inside the Democratic House chambers. According to one account published in Politico, Speaker Pelosi “assured the Democrats that, while organized labor was helping with field operations, she was trying to get allied liberal groups to give House Democrats some air cover, too.”

In the same Politico article, it was reported that Democratic aides “fired a warning shot at liberal groups” and suggested if they did not buy air time in support of Democratic candidates there could be “long-term ramifications.”

The speaker’s statements and those of her House colleagues did not escape the attention of conservatives. On October 22, a formal complaint was filed before the Federal Election Commission charging that Speaker Pelosi and other Democrats were violating one of the most basic provisions of federal campaign laws.

They charged that Democrats had illegally communicated their wishes to third-party groups that are supposedly “independent” of any political parties.

The conservative group Let Freedom Ring filed the official complaint before the Federal Elections Commission, charging that the speaker and other House Democrats had “engaged in the deliberate, willful and intentional violation” of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971.

This narrative, of course, is totally at variance with the Democrats’ explanation today of why they are losing. From the president on down, their expected losses are due to waves of money being spent by conservative advocacy groups.

But the insider Washington media outlets tell a different story. They carefully record the frustration of House Democrats toward liberal groups that were sitting on their hands in early fall.

Within weeks of the media reports, many liberal groups got the Speaker’s message.  Nearly thirty organizations dramatically increased their media spending.  The complaint identifies the liberal groups and unions that were violating the law by “communicating” or otherwise consorting with the Democrats.

The “non-party” organizations that Pelosi was referring to emerged after the 2000 election with the founding of groups like Moveon.org.  That organization pioneered the use of “independent expenditure groups” — groups non-affiliated with any political party.

An independent expenditure group could raise unlimited money without any requirement of disclosure.   But such groups cannot communicate with anyone in a political party or from a candidate’s camp.  As their designation implied, their work had to be completely independent.

The Let Freedom Ring complaint suggests that the wall of separation was breached after the Speaker and her aides met in a number of House caucus meetings.

On September 22, Politico chronicled the angry, behind-the-scenes atmosphere within top Democratic circles after Labor Day:

Twice in the past week, House Democrats used closed-door meetings with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to deliver an urgent message: They’re being crushed on the airwaves by outside groups, and they need her to do something about it.

“I’m saying get out there,” she told a group of Democratic freshmen, according to a source familiar with the meeting. “We need more.”

[...]

These officials are particularly angered by the relative absence of support from the environmental and pro-health care groups that were so aggressive in lobbying House Democrats to support energy and health care reform legislation. “Where are those guys?” a top House Democratic aide demanded. “There is very real and growing resentment over these groups being AWOL.

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