Washington, D.C. – Late yesterday, reform groups asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to declare unlawful the dismissal of a complaint against the secretive political spending group Crossroads Grassroots Political Strategies (GPS) by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The motion for summary judgment stems from the FEC’s failure to investigate Crossroads GPS for not registering as a political committee. The FEC Office of General Counsel had strongly recommended that the agency investigate in the face of evidence against the group but the Commission deadlocked along party lines leading to the dismissal of the complaint.
The lawsuit, Public Citizen v. FEC, was brought by the parties to the 2010 complaint: Public Citizen; Craig Holman, campaign finance expert for Public Citizen; ProtectOurElections.org; and Kevin Zeese, an attorney for ProtectOurElections.org. The Campaign Legal Center and Public Citizen are handling the legal work on the case as co-counsel for the parties.
The groups contend that Crossroads GPS – an organization created by Republican strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie to influence the 2010 midterm elections – fits the legal definition of a political committee: any group that receives or spends more than $1,000 during a calendar year to influence elections and whose major purpose is federal campaign activity. Political committees must disclose information about their donors and expenditures. The FEC’s refusal to investigate Crossroads GPS for failing to register as a political committee has allowed the organization to continue to keep its donors secret for the last three election cycles.
“Courts are the only recourse when three Commissioners ignore the laws passed by Congress, ignore the FEC’s own longstanding policies and ignore the call for an investigation by their own General Counsel,” said Paul S. Ryan, Campaign Legal Center Senior Counsel. “As a result of that FEC deadlock the seemingly clear cut violations of the law by Crossroads GPS have continued unabated and other ‘dark money’ groups have been emboldened to follow suit resulting in a massive spike in undisclosed political spending in our elections. We hope that the court sees fit to grant this motion and ensure that every member of the Commission fulfils the duties of their office and enforces the laws passed by Congress.”
“We hope the court will be able to see what the three Commissioners who blocked the FEC from proceeding claimed they could not: Crossroads GPS was formed to pour money into our elections, and that is exactly what it did in the 2010 elections,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “The Commissioners’ failure to perceive that reality is a classic case of failing to see that the emperor has no clothes.”
In 2007, the FEC published a detailed policy laying out how the agency determines an organization’s major purpose. The policy provides that the FEC will consider public and non-public statements by the organization and the proportion of spending on “federal election activity,” which includes spending on express advocacy (messages calling for a vote for or against a candidate) as well as electioneering communications and other materials that discuss the merits of a candidate immediately before an election.
Evidence indicates that Crossroads GPS operates as a political committee. Between June and December 2010, Crossroads GPS spent $20.8 million on federal campaign activity – more than half of what Crossroads GPS reported spending the entire year, the FEC’s general counsel determined.
And Crossroads GPS’ co-founder, the Republican strategist Karl Rove, boasted on FOX News that Crossroads GPS was an avenue for donors who had maxed out to GOP political committees. In October 2010, the group announced a $4.2 million ad buy targeting eight heavily contested U.S. Senate races. Three-quarters of the ad buy was paid for with money from undisclosed donors.
“Disclosure of who is paying for political ads is an important part of campaign finance law and an essential consideration for voters,” said Zeese of ProtectOurElections.org. “Disclosure of who is paying for political ads is an important part of campaign finance law and an essential consideration for voters. The FEC however – because of obstruction by three partisan Commissioners – has allowed such expenditures to be done in secret thereby undermining the law and our democracy. Our case gives the court the opportunity to correct that injustice.”
Political committees are required by law to disclose the identities of their donors. In an attempt to avoid disclosing its donors, Crossroads GPS has applied for status as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit social welfare group.