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FEC Fine-Tunes Its Own Auditing Process

After hours of delays and discussions, the Federal Election Commission approved new audit guidelines Thursday aimed at creating safeguards against potential mistakes by its own auditors.

The new policy comes in the wake of a faulty AFL-CIO audit that sent the agency’s staff backpedaling in recent months. The commission was proceeding toward leveling a seven-figure fine against the union for improper financial transactions, but the commissioners instead found themselves making apologies to union officials. The audit division said it had misplaced a crucial 30-year-old document that vindicated the group’s transactions.

“We’re really very pleased that the commission decided that what we have been doing for the last 30 years has been done legally,” said Laurence Gold, a lawyer for the AFL-CIO, which was later exonerated during the FEC’s open meeting. “But it was certainly dismaying that we had to go through that process … which did really underscore that the commission has some inadequate rules and procedures.”

The newly passed rules will insert the six-person panel of commissioners earlier in the process to target such mistakes. This directive, which will take part as a pilot program, requires the audit division to submit interim and draft final audits to the commission for approval. Under current practices, the commissioners have received audits only at the end of the process.

While the new audit procedures were passed unanimously, there was some contention between commissioners about the importance of the new guidelines. The agency performs 20 to 30 audits per year — mostly on presidential campaigns and other major committees.

“I am personally embarrassed and very frustrated at what we have been spending our time on lately,” Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub said. She said the agency should instead be focused on a backlog of rulemaking including regulations for coordinated communications.

Republican Commissioner Donald McGahn II, a proponent of the new rules, said these guidelines were necessary to prevent mistakes.

“I find it disappointing that some people may find this to be a waste of time and that they are embarrassed,” he said in response to Weintraub. “Because, to me, what is a waste of time is what happened to the AFL-CIO.”

The heated exchange between the commissioners took place after the commission delayed its meeting several times on Thursday and spent much of the day hashing out the language of the new rules.

“We strongly agree with the comments made by Commissioner Weintraub,” said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, who added that he has been waiting years for the commission to issue rules on substantive matters. “One can’t be particularly optimistic that these new auditing procedures are going to do anything other than perhaps give the Republican commissioners the ability to block audit findings.”

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