Rarer than a day in June? FEC goes after congressional campaign for failure to disclose

Head and shoulders shot of Rep. Joe Walsh, salt-and-pepper haired man in dark suit, white shirt, red tie with U.S. flag over his right shoulder
Former Rep. Joe Walsh (Photo credit: U.S. Congress via Wikimedia)

The Federal Election Commission has issued a preliminary audit that accuses former Rep. Joe Walsh‘s campaign committee of failing to make “best efforts” to disclose the employers and occupations of donors who gave a total of $334,146 to the the Illinois Republican’s congressional campaign committee in 2011 and 2012.

It’s a noteworthy case not because of the nature of the offense, but because it’s unusual for the FEC to do anything about it. That’s because the federal law that requires campaign committees to collect donor employers and occupations contains a gaping loophole. Committees aren’t required to provide information on donors’ jobs, just to make their “best effort” to collect this information if donors omit it. This means the committee needs to follow up, either in writing or on the phone, and document that they’ve requested what’s missing. Beyond that, there’s little enforcement of the requirement that donors who give more than $200 provide employment details, as illustrated by two recent examples. Both involve Dan Backer, a prominent campaign finance lawyer behind a number of cases aimed as dismantling disclosure laws, including McCutcheon vs. FEC, the Supreme Court case that resulted in aggregate campaign limits to candidates and political parties being tossed:

Steve Stockman

In a filing ahead of the Texas Republican Senate primary, one candidate, Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, filed a report that listed 27 itemized contributions from individuals totaling $14,480. Every single donor’s occupation and employer was left blank. The FEC noticed this and issued a “Request for Additional Information” to Backer, the group’s treasurer. Instead of adding the requested information, Backer said in an amended filing that the PAC had followed the rules by making “best efforts”, and chalked up the poor response to: “the substantial reticence of conservative donors to provide personal information to a government that actively spies on its citizens and openly targets individual conservatives for abuse and harassment through government action.”

Tea Party Leadership Fund

The Tea Party Leadership Fund, another PAC Backer serves as treasurer, itemized about $670,000 in individual contributions in 2013 and 2014 to date (the PAC also reported $4.5 million in unitemized contributions totaling $200 or less). Of the itemized contributions, at least $215,000 worth have no employer listed. That list includes an Oct. 15 donation of $5,000 from Shaun McCutcheon. That would be the same McCutcheon better known as the plaintiff in McCutcheon vs. FEC, one of the most important campaign finance cases in years, a case on which Backer served as McCutcheon’s lawyer. Yet the campaign committee for which Backer served as treasurer nonetheless could not seem to find out McCutcheon’s employment information (he’s CEO of Coalmont Electrical Development Company).

Asked about the Tea Party Leadership Fund, Backer said that group carefully follows the “best effort” guidelines to identify donors’ missing data, and that doing so cost upwards of $25,000. But the follow up was ineffective. “We tried really hard to fix this problem and the results were pathetic,” he said, blaming the problem on donors. “Even though they’re being asked to provide this information, they’re simply choosing not to.” Conservatives who donate to the PACs he works for don’t trust the government, Backer maintained: “People don’t want their information all over the web. All we’re doing is creating burden and hassle on political speech.”

The campaign committee for Walsh, a Tea Party proponent turned controversial talk radio host, got called out only because it provided no evidence of attempting to get the employer information. And it turns out the PAC did make an attempt to get employers and occupations that were missing — but a computer crash wiped out their revised list. FEC auditors found a hard copy of the missing employer information for 88 donors, representing $111,860 in contributions, who had responded to a request for more information.

The audit also found a total of $92,325 in donations to Walsh’s campaign from people who exceeded the contribution limits. The committee received about $1.15 million in itemized contributions from individuals during the 2012 campaign cycle.