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Watchdogs File New Complaint Against ACT

A trio of campaign finance watchdogs lodged a new complaint Tuesday against the prominent Democratic-leaning “527” group America Coming Together, alleging that it has been illegally spending soft money to defeat President Bush.

The complaint by Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center and the Center for Responsive Politics describes an “outrageous effort” now under way to have the Federal Election Commission withdraw the specific parts of an earlier ruling that make it “clear that ACT has been, and is, engaged in multiple violations of campaign finance laws.”

This complaint follows one filed in January by the same watchdog groups against ACT and two other 527 groups. That complaint alleged that the 527s were concocting schemes to circumvent a federal ban on soft money in campaigns.

In separate complaints also filed in January, the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee accused ACT and other groups of illegally coordinating their activities with the Kerry campaign.

ACT officials maintain that the group has been acting completely within the letter of the law.

The new charges concern fundraising solicitations by America Coming Together that were mass-mailed to potential supporters. These letters refer to the group’s mission to send Bush a “one-way ticket back to Crawford, Texas.”

President Bush, read one ACT solicitation from June, “has worked hard to undermine a woman’s right to choose. His reckless disregard for the environment has eroded decades of progress. He’s set timber companies loose on our national forests — and he’s set John Ashcroft loose on our civil liberties. But wishing won’t make Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft and DeLay and their extremist agenda go away. Wishing won’t elect John Kerry. People-to-people organizing will — and organizing is what ACT is all about.”

Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer and his co-complainants contend that ACT fundraising reports indicate that such mailings were paid for with soft money — which would be against the law.

“Our complaint charges that ACT has been illegally funding its direct-mail communications that attack or oppose Bush with 98 percent soft money and two percent hard money, instead of the 100 percent federal hard money they are required to use,” Wertheimer said.

He added that such mailings should have clearly stated that they were only raising money under the law’s hard-money limits.

Wertheimer’s complaint rests primarily on legal principles laid out in a February advisory opinion by the FEC relating to a Republican-leaning 527 called Americans for a Better Country. That opinion advised that “a political committee with federal and non-federal accounts must use only federal funds to finance communications and voter mobilization activities … that ‘promote, support, attack or oppose only clearly-identified candidates.’”

A lawyer who recently testified before the FEC on behalf of ACT dismissed the complaint’s claims, arguing that it omitted a salient point by failing to mention that the FEC’s rulemaking process ended inconclusively, with a majority of members voting to essentially table new regulations on 527s until after this campaign cycle.

“It doesn’t mention that the FEC took up all of these issues and made certain decisions about not changing the rules this election cycle,” the attorney explained. “I don’t think he can, in light of that history, rely on this [advisory opinion] in the way that he does here.”

Indeed, EMILY’s List President Ellen Malcolm, who is also president of ACT, recently petitioned the FEC to withdraw those portions of the ABC opinion, arguing that “subsequent commission actions have put the viability” of those portions “in grave doubt.”