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?
October 29, 2010 - 12:23 am
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.
According to Politico’s Jonathan Martin, Pelosi answered their rising anger:
Pelosi acknowledged the problem and 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.
A Democratic aide told Martin things were going to get rough for the activists if they didn’t respond:
[A] Democratic aide fired a warning shot at liberal groups, suggesting that their absence from the campaign could have “long-term ramifications.
Roll Call reported that House members, with Pelosi in attendance, fumed about the lack of liberal spending on the airwaves.
Quoting Pelosi, Roll Call reporter Anna Palmer reported:
Rank-and-file House Democrats used a Caucus meeting Thursday to complain to leaders that liberal groups aren’t doing enough to help them this election cycle.
“The message from liberal groups was that they would be there for Democrats,” one leadership aide said. “There’s a growing unease that these people are AWOL.”
Within a month, liberal and progressive groups were on the air.
These proclamations in the caucus meetings by Pelosi and Larsen constitute a “deliberate, willful and intentional violation of the Act by specifically requesting that outside organizations make public communications in support of Democratic candidates for Congress,” the complaint states.
Let Freedom Ring charges that in late September the Sierra Club Political Committee began its “independent” TV and radio ads. So too did VoteVets.org Action Committee. A union group called Workers of America Working Voices also began their ad campaign in September.
In October, Let Freedom Ring reported that ads were popping up from the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund, the BlueGreen Alliance, Majority Action PAC, the American Federation of Teachers, Blue America PAC, The American Worker, Inc., the 2010 Leadership Council, and the NEA Fund for Children and Public Education.
Money and Politics Report indicated that by October 19, liberal third-party groups and unions had reported raising $5.2 million and that many “Democratic leaning” groups were gearing up for an ad push.
Money and Politics focused on one typical liberal group — America’s Families First Action Fund — that was first reported in a leak to the New York Times:
A new Democratic-leaning group called America’s Families First Action Fund has begun sponsoring broadcast ads and mailings in a half-dozen key House races, pushing back against an onslaught of spending by Republican-leaning groups, according to new Federal Election Commission filings.
The FEC “independent expenditure” reports indicate that the new group, which reportedly is being spearheaded by former Democratic Party operatives, spent $1.1 million through Oct. 13 on messages opposing Republican candidates in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.
The overall goal was described as an “effort [to] both oppose Republicans with issue-based communication and support Democrats with targeted persuasion and turnout of progressive minded voters,” according to the leaked document, which was titled “Sustaining the House Majority: An Independent Effort for the 2010 Election.”
When many of these organizations did gear up for their ad war, did they do so because they truly believed in Obama and the Democrats? Or did they do it because they heard the threats from Democrats and wanted to please Speaker Nancy Pelosi?
That’s what we hope the Federal Election Committee investigates.