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Doolittle Shows How Not to Respond to the FEC

Election law experts say it’s the least you can do: Keep tidy fundraising records and you’ll give ambitious federal investigators one less reason to start snooping.

Just don’t try to convince Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) of it.

Since being first elected to Congress in 1990, Doolittle has amassed a heroic 122 follow-up letters from the Federal Election Commission for a wide range of mostly venial campaign finance sins, like missing deadlines, failing to notify the agency of last-minute campaign gifts and accidentally accepting an illegal corporate contribution or two.

Sure, receipts go missing, keystroke errors are made, volunteers get lazy and computers melt down — all campaigns deal with the realities of running what amounts to a small business on a shoestring. And with filing deadlines expiring fast, forms frequently are submitted and later amended. Still, the sheer volume of warning letters the FEC sent Doolittle, as well as the campaign’s apparent lackadaisical approach, does appear to be out of the ordinary, especially for a Member who likely would prefer to stay as far away as possible from federal law enforcement.

Doolittle’s home recently was raided by the FBI and his ties to now-incarcerated ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff have drawn scrutiny.

Although one election lawyer suggested Doolittle’s approach to the FEC appears to be an exercise in what not to do, the lawmaker’s campaign has never been audited or fined by the commission. Still, the lawyer said Doolittle has made a potentially costly gamble.

“You want the records to be clean for the simple reason that you don’t want the questions to be asked,” said the lawyer, who did not want to be named. “[Follow-up letters] start a process … you then have an obligation as a committee to come back and answer the FEC.”

In one exchange between the FEC and Doolittle’s campaign committee more than 10 years ago, the agency wrote to Doolittle twice in two weeks demanding that he file campaign finance reports — or else. These letters were, in fact, a second round of agency follow-ups demanding the campaign file documents going back nearly six months.

“This letter is to inform you that as of May 8, 1996, the commission has not received your response to our request for additional information dated April 16, 1996,” reads one FEC letter. “If no response is received within 15 days from the date of this legal notice, the Commission may choose to initiate an audit or legal enforcement action.”

A few weeks later, Doolittle’s campaign received a similar letter asking for a response from an FEC request made two weeks earlier, which it appeared to ignore.

Blowing off such request letters, an election lawyer said, is one way a campaign can wind up pushing the ball forward in an FEC enforcement case, including triggering an audit, a fine or landing the case on the desk of an FEC lawyer, who can recommend the Justice Department take up the issue.

“If the [letters] are not answered at all, or if they are answered inadequately, [the campaign committee] effectively starts building up points,” the lawyer continued. “As points build up … a number of things can happen.”

Even the House’s model citizens don’t always provide every last tidbit. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose San Francisco-area district sits about an hour-and-a-half west of Doolittle’s, has received 41 such letters during the same period. Among other Democratic House leaders, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) has received about 60 such letters since 1989 and Majority Whip James Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) campaign has gotten roughly 40.

On the Republican side, Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) has fielded 77 FEC follow-up letters. Since coming to Congress in 1997, Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) has received 22 warnings for filing incomplete reforms.

David Bauer, Doolittle’s treasurer, declined to elaborate on why the campaign has been the target of so many letters over the years, other than to confirm that the committee has never been fined or audited. And when he has been required to make changes in the books, Bauer said, they were minor.

“All the amendments were technical in nature,” he said. “There were no substantial changes.”

While showing himself Teflon-coated with the FEC, Doolittle is facing significant obstacles on multiple fronts that may threaten his political future. The FBI raided his Virginia home last month in relation to his wife’s rumored business dealings with Abramoff.

Adding to his troubles, police administrator Charlie Brown (D), who practically beat Doolittle in November despite the heavy Republican lean of his district, has declared that he will run again against Doolittle in 2008. Doolittle won their first race by about 3 percentage points.

Doolittle aides have acknowledged the Congressman’s ongoing troubles may force him to step aside in 2008. The Congressman’s legal troubles aside, Brown spokesman Todd Stenhouse said Wednesday that national issues alone could tip the scales in the district.

“What the people in this district … continue to talk about is, ‘so what are you going to do about Iraq, what are you going to do about gas prices, what are you going to do about health care?” Stenhouse said.

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