Life just got a little easier for opposition researchers, thanks to a Web-based enforcement query system launched last week by the Federal Election Commission.
The online system allows users to search documents and other material related to closed enforcement cases — an effort that previously required a trip to the FEC office.
“This represents an effort to improve the transparency of commission actions by raising enforcement disclosure to the same high level the commission has sought for campaign finance reports and other public information,” FEC Staff Director James Pehrkon explained in a memo about the new system, which went live last Thursday. The system, at https://eqs.sdrdc.com/eqs/searcheqs, can also be accessed from the FEC home page at www.fec.gov.
At the same time, FEC officials issued a policy statement announcing what kind of documents related to closed cases will be placed in the public record.
The interim policy comes on the heels of a U.S. District Court ruling in 2001 that confidentiality requirements do not lapse when FEC investigations ends.
As a result of that ruling, which was upheld this summer by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the FEC will place the following categories of documents in the public record: the original complaint or internal agency referral; a response to the complaint; the general counsel’s report and recommendations; notification of “reason to believe” findings; briefs; statements of reasons; conciliation agreements; and evidence of payment of a civil penalty of disgorgement and certifications of commission votes.
Additionally, the FEC will release designations of counsel, requests for extensions of time, responses to requests for extensions of time and closeout letters.
However, the FEC will not release material related to its investigative files, including subpoenaed records, deposition transcripts, and other records produced in discovery, even if such materials are referenced in other released documents.
The FEC issued similar interim rules outlining the specific documents it will release publicly in cases settled through the administrative fine program and the alternative dispute resolution system.
FEC officials said they plan next year to initiate a rulemaking procedure to adopt formal regulations instituting a public record disclosure policy for enforcement matters.
In a recent petition for rulemaking, The Campaign Legal Center, National Voting Rights Institute, Democracy 21 and Center for Responsive Politics jointly argued that “public access to such materials is essential to meaningful review and monitoring of the agency’s enforcement of federal campaign finance law.”
Agency officials on Thursday also released a 34-page report outlining the success of their enforcement efforts. The report, which tracks progress of the FEC’s enforcement program from 1995 through Sept. 30, 2003, demonstrated a substantial increase in the level of civil penalties assessed by the FEC after it instituted an “enforcement priority system” in 1993.
In 1991, 262 cases were closed with $534,000 in civil penalties, compared with $1.9 million in fines associated with 229 closed cases in 1995. By 2003, the FEC closed 377 cases with civil penalties totaling nearly $2.8 million.