Dozens of groups fined by FEC refusing to pay

Campaign finance laws are a byzantine maze that candidates and PACs must find their way through to avoid violations.  What's worse, the Federal Election Commission can interpret those laws any way it wishes, punishing some groups while letting others skate.

The only way the FEC can punish an organization is by fining it.  But Congress forgot to give the agency enforcement powers when it created it.  The FEC can hector, cajole, even threaten groups to pay what they legally owe in fines – but if a group doesn't want to pay, the FEC has little recourse to collect.

Politico is reporting that the Center for Public Integrity has discovered that 160 candidates and political groups have refused to pay $1.3 million in fines to the FEC.  The agency could take these groups to court – but doesn't.  And it can't turn them over to the Justice Department, either.  So the agency simply marks the debt as "uncollectible" and moves on.

How did this state of affairs come about?

Uncooperative political committee leaders, bureaucratic bumbling and flaccid fine enforcement efforts all contribute to election law breakers outrunning penalties during a time when campaign shenanigans – from Russian advertisements to government contractors bankrolling super PACs – are increasingly brazen and sophisticated.

The situation "reinforces the view of many political actors that there really isn't a sheriff in town," said Adam Rappaport, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which filed a complaint against the 60 Plus Association that prompted the FEC's fine. "Political actors feel confident and comfortable that the FEC will not enforce campaign finance laws against them."

Commissioners argue – and agency records confirm – that the FEC collects on the vast majority of fines it doles out for election law violations great and small. This decade, the FEC has, on average, assessed about $997,000 in fines each year.

It's really not that difficult to avoid paying an FEC fine.

· Offenders often just begin by waiting 180 days after the FEC makes its final ruling on the fine, and ignoring the FEC's strongly-worded letters. The FEC has no unilateral power to seize a political committee's assets, and it rarely sues in federal court. Generally, Walther says, such legal action is too costly and time-consuming. The FEC isn't allowed to pocket fine money derived from its own enforcement actions – cash it collects goes straight to the U.S. government's general fund. "We can't justify the expense," Walther said.

· If there's no payment after 180 days, the FEC itself gives up and refers the debt to its de facto collection agent, the U.S. Treasury's Bureau of the Fiscal Service.

· Officials at the Bureau of the Fiscal Service typically try to compel payment with more phone calls, demand letters or even referral to a private collection agency. But many offenders just ignore these efforts as well. And why wouldn't they? Despite having the power to do so, the bureau "has not referred any debts originating with FEC to [the Department of Justice] for litigation," said Alyssa Riedl, director of the Bureau of the Fiscal Service's Debt Collection Program Management Directorate.

· The Bureau of the Fiscal Service then often declares the debt "uncollectable" and refers it back to the FEC. "Fiscal Service may return a debt to an agency if it determines that the cost of additional collection efforts will exceed anticipated collections," Riedl said.

One of the least surprising scofflaws is Al Sharpton:

Sharpton's 2004 Democratic presidential campaign still owes $2,150 from three fines the FEC issued from 2004 to 2005. The Bureau of the Fiscal Service has deemed Sharpton's debt "uncollectable" even though Sharpton, whose old campaign committee owes numerous other debts to public and private creditors, remains omnipresent in U.S. politics – President Barack Obama enshrined Sharpton as a key, if informal adviser, and Sharpton even has his own MSNBC television show.

Jesse Jackson III, who owes $25,000 in FEC fines, went to jail for two years for stealing money from his campaign for personal use.  He has yet to pay any fines to the agency.

Joe Scarborough owes a small amount to the FEC, as does Green Party candidate Jill Stein.  Large or small, those who seek to avoid FEC fines are in violation of federal law – no matter what they or we think about the efficacy of campaign finance regulations.

Every year, the FEC asks for more enforcement powers, and every year, Congress ignores it.  Maybe after this report, Congress will get serious about enforcing the law.