Ney Mulls Subpoenas

Democratic Groups Refuse to Testify on 527s

Posted November 18, 2003 at 6:42pm

The leaders of five Democratic-leaning organizations have refused to testify about their soft-money activities during a House Administration Committee hearing scheduled for Thursday, forcing Republicans to decide whether to use their subpoena power to compel the officials to appear.

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) vowed that the hearing will proceed as planned and reminded the groups that he could force them to testify.

The groups — Partnership for America’s Families, America Votes, America Coming Together, New House PAC and Democratic Senate Majority Fund — sent a letter to Ney on Tuesday outlining their reasons for “declining” to appear.

The organizations and their Democratic supporters on Capitol Hill blasted the Ohio Republican, calling the hearings politically motivated and interfering with their First Amendment rights to engage in unrestricted political dialogue.

“This has been kind of a bizarre thing from the beginning,” said Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), ranking member on House Administration.

He said that Ney’s hearing smacked of a “government channel to air political laundry” and a way to damper the groups’ ability to operate “through completely legal channels.”

Larson said he first learned of the hearing through newspaper accounts and called Ney’s acting without consulting him “uncharacteristic.”

Ney spokesman Brian Walsh said the minority was given ample notice and the opportunity to call its own witnesses. He added that his boss intends to go ahead with the hearing despite the five groups’ stated intention not to appear.

Larson said he hasn’t determined whether the Democrats will invite other groups to testify.

The hearing was called to review the operations of so-called “527” nonprofit organizations, which are governed by Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Service code and can collect and spend soft money to influence federal elections.

Republicans point to the fact that two of the Democratic-affiliated groups that have been asked to appear — the New House PAC and the Democratic Senate Majority Fund — raise both hard and soft money and thus may violate the spirit — if not the letter — of last year’s Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

Walsh added that when the hearing convenes Thursday, Ney will make a decision on whether to subpoena the five groups.

“Chairman Ney has a number of options before him to move the issue forward. Among those options would be to subpoena those who were asked to participate in Thursday’s hearing and choose not to,” Walsh said.

But the Democratic groups’ letter to Ney — signed by Partnership for America’s Families CEO Steve Rosenthal, Democratic Senate Majority Fund Executive Director Marc Farinella, New House PAC head Howard Wolfson, America Votes President Cecile Richards and America Coming Together President Ellen Malcolm — asserts their belief that the committee does not have “a legitimate purpose in undertaking an open-ended inquiry into ongoing core First Amendment-protected activities of private political groups.”

“The dangers of such an inquiry are particularly acute when six of the eight organizations that we understand to have been asked to testify share political views and objectives opposed to those of many, if not most, of the committee majority,” the letter continued.

The sixth organization to which they refer, Voices for Working Families, was also called to testify. But Gerald McEntee, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who also serves as CEO of Voices for Working Families, was not a signatory to the letter.

Walsh said that the group has not informed the committee that it will attend, as is customary. AFSCME officials declined to comment.

In addition to representatives from the six Democratic-leaning organizations, Ney also requested the testimony of two Republicans, lobbyist Susan Hirschmann, former chief of staff to now-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), and lobbyist Frank Donatelli of Americans for a Better Country, a GOP-affiliated 527.

George Terwillger, a Republican lobbyist with White & Case LLP and a former deputy attorney general under former President George Bush, volunteered to testify on behalf of ABC and was subsequently invited to attend.

The five Democratic-leaning groups slammed Republicans for calling a hearing at all, but especially before the Supreme Court rules on the legality of BCRA, which banned soft-money fundraising by national parties.

The letter goes on to note that Ney voted against BCRA on grounds that it inhibits free expression and association. “The committee’s curious decision to now hold a ‘compliance’ hearing is certainly vulnerable to the suggestion or appearance of a political purpose,” the five groups wrote.

“The appearance of partisan political purposes was powerfully reinforced [Monday] when the Republican National Committee held a teleconference with reporters to attack a number of our organizations. Indeed, the RNC attack was framed in a manner that echoes the committee’s release.”

Walsh countered that House Administration has an obligation to oversee BCRA’s implementation.

“On the surface, they appear to be trying to make the claim that the committee does not have jurisdiction over campaign finance reform,” Walsh said. “The committee has an obligation to see how the law is being followed. It is disappointing that while the Republicans indicated they would be coming to the hearing, the Democrats remain behind closed doors.”