FEC Pursues Suit Against Rep. Evans
In an unusual move, the Federal Election Commission has filed suit against Rep. Lane Evans’ campaign committee, charging that an intertwined political committee acted as the campaign’s “alter ego,” directly supporting the Illinois Democrat’s re-election in two hard-fought bids with more than $330,000 in unregulated soft money, two-thirds of which came directly from unions.
The suit was filed Friday in federal court in Illinois. The FEC complaint focuses on the tangled operation of the Evans campaign and two political committees that raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in unregulated soft money, the 17th District Victory Fund and the Rock Island Democratic Central Committee, during the 1998 and 2000 election cycles.
It appears to be the first effort by the FEC to challenge in court an innovative fundraising vehicle employed by several Congressional campaigns that took off in 1997 when soft money flowed freely. Such activity was sharply curtailed by the new campaign finance law’s ban on soft money.
Evans defeated GOP candidate Mark Baker in both campaigns and the contests received national attention, with both parties mounting well-financed efforts to win the seat.
The Victory Fund, established in 1997, was set up to finance get-out-the-vote activities with a mix of hard- and soft-money contributions. Illinois Democrats defended the victory funds — which were copied by several Democratic Congressional candidates in the 2000 cycle — as a legal activity that benefited all federal and local Democratic candidates in a particular district. During the 2000 cycle, the 9th Congressional District Victory Fund was chaired by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) herself. Another victory fund operated in the 10th district to support the unsuccessful Democratic candidate there.
The FEC complaint deals exclusively with the Evans campaign. Government attorneys charged that the 17th District Victory Fund “was in fact nothing more than an alter ego of the Congressman’s campaign committee. This auxiliary campaign committee accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions which, if given directly to Congressman Evans’ re-election campaign, would have exceeded the statutory limits on contributions to candidates, and accepted nearly $200,000 from labor organizations, which candidates are prohibited from accepting.”
The Victory Fund spent the money directly on efforts to re-elect Evans, including voter identification and GOTV activities, field operations, direct mail and telephone calls in his district, the suit alleged.
The Victory Fund operated at “the direction of, and in close coordination with” Eric Nelson, the manager of the Evans campaign, the suit charged.
The Evans campaign, through Nelson, “established the Victory Fund, shared common consultants with the Victory Fund, arranged for the financing of the Victory Fund (including the solicitation of funds for it), and directed the Victory Fund’s operations,” according to the FEC suit.
A spokesman for Evans forcefully contested the FEC allegations and vowed that the campaign committee would fight the suit.
“This lawsuit is baseless and it will be fought vigorously,” said spokesman Steve Vetzner. “It is being brought at the behest of the Rock Island Republican Party which wants to do in court what it can’t do at the ballot box.”
Vetzner said the Victory Fund was created to strengthen grassroots organizing in the 17th District and respond to massive amounts of money being funneled to the Republican Party to defeat Democratic candidates, including Evans.
He noted that “hundreds of volunteers gave thousands of hours of their time phone banking, canvassing and leafleting. It demonstrated that people power can defeat money power. The Victory Fund didn’t do anything wrong; it simply was better at its work than the GOP was.”
But the FEC contended that the Victory Fund operated in an unusual manner, with no charter or bylaws, no members or regular meetings, and no office space within the district. The two officers of the fund were hand-selected by Nelson, Evans’ campaign manager.
Donations to the Victory Fund were solicited by the Evans’ campaign and a fundraising consultant who worked for both entities.
In addition, the Rock Island Democratic Party spent $18,000 in 1998 on radio ads, direct mail and a newspaper ad expressly advocating Evans’ re-election after consultation with Evans’ campaign manager, the suit alleged.
Robert Bauer, an attorney who is representing the Evans’ campaign, called the FEC suit “nonsense.”
“This is about the FEC pursuing a cockamamie theory that they cannot sustain in court against a candidate who did nothing but conduct, in coordination with other candidates, lawful grassroots activity through the 17th district committee in his Congressional district.”
Bauer said that even under the restrictions of the new campaign finance law, it isn’t illegal for federal, state and local candidates to work together to turn out votes. “It wasn’t illegal then and it’s not illegal now,” said Bauer. It is illegal in Belarus, but not in the United States.”
The FEC court action originated with a complaint filed by the Rock Island GOP in 2000. After investigating, the FEC’s legal staff concluded that there was probable cause to believe that election laws were violated. At least four of the six FEC commissioners agreed and voted to enter negotiations to settle the matter.
The settlement talks failed. “The FEC believes that a Congressman who is working with other candidates on voter-contact programs has to spend an enormous amount of time hassling with the federal government. We’re not going to do that,” said Bauer. “We invited them to test their case in court and they will and they will test it unsuccessfully.”