FEC May Be Back in Business Soon

Finances Played Role in Nominee’s Decision

Posted May 16, 2008 at 3:16pm

Federal Election Commission nominee Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department lawyer, dropped his bid late Friday for a seat at the agency, ending a long-standing stalemate that could bring the elections regulator back online by Memorial Day.

“It is with great regret that I write to request that you withdraw my nomination to be a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission,” von Spakovsky said in his letter to the White House. “My nomination has been pending for almost two and one half years in the Senate without resolution.”

In an interview following the announcement, von Spakovsky said two major factors led to his decision: personal financial considerations and the need for oversight at the FEC during a presidential election year.

“I’m not a rich guy. I wasn’t a rich guy when I moved here and I couldn’t keep waiting,” he said. “The last straw was when my wife brought my son home from the orthodontist and said, ‘he needs braces.’”

“When it gets to the point where this is starting to affect my kids’ welfare, I had to pull out,” he added.

White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore called von Spakovsky, who arrived at the FEC in 2005, “an excellent commissioner who worked hard to effectively administer and enforce America’s federal election laws.”

“His work clearly demonstrated his commitment to increasing transparency and accountability from all who participate in the election process,” Lawrimore said in a statement. “During Mr. von Spakovsky’s tenure at the commission, the FEC conducted the most vigorous enforcement program in the agency’s history.”

Still, despite the White House’s pleasantries, von Spakovsky himself become the subject of deafening criticism from campaign finance reform organizations and civil rights groups during the past six months. The groups accused him of pushing state-level voter identification laws and other controversial policies at the Justice Department, his previous employer.

“Given his record of suppressing minority voting rights and partisan misdeeds at the Justice Department, von Spakovsky should never have been rewarded with a recess appointment by the Bush Administration, let alone a formal confirmation by the Senate,” the Campaign Legal Center’s Gerry Hebert said in a statement earlier this year.

But von Spakovsky reiterated in the interview Friday that a recent Supreme Court decision upholding an Indiana law that requires voters to show photo identification at polling places largely vindicates his stay at the Justice Department.

“I guess I was naive to think that if your legal opinion as a lawyer is actually proven to be correct — even by the Supreme Court … I would’ve thought that might have led people to say, ‘Maybe we were wrong,” he said. “But in Washington, no one wants to admit they were wrong.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he was “deeply disappointed” with von Spakovsky’s decision to abandon his nomination, blaming Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for backing out of a long-standing agreement to OK the other side’s FEC picks.

“Senate Democrats set a troubling precedent with their partisan obstruction of a highly qualified nominee to the FEC — something that has never been done during my time in the Senate, regardless of who was in the majority,” McConnell said in a statement. “Senate Democrats have politicized one more function of the legislative branch that had traditionally been a partisan-free zone.”

But Reid said that von Spakovsky’s “long and well-documented history of working to suppress the rights of minorities and the elderly to vote” made him “not qualified to hold any position of trust in our government.”

“His withdrawal today is a victory for our electoral process,” Reid said in a statement. “With Mr. von Spakovsky now removed, I anticipate that we will be able to swiftly put a functioning FEC in place.”

Von Spakovsky’s departure comes a day after Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced a hearing next Wednesday on three new commission nominees: Democrat Cynthia Bauerly and Republicans Don McGahn and Caroline Hunter.

Bauerly, an aide to Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), would replace recently departed commissioner Robert Lenhard. McGahn, a former National Republican Congressional Committee lawyer now in private practice, would replace recently ousted GOP maverick commissioner David Mason. Hunter, who now sits on the Election Assistance Commission, would replace Michael Toner, who left the commission last year.

The three new nominees would join holdover pick Steven Walther, a Democrat, and sitting Democratic commissioner Ellen Weintraub.

White House spokeswoman Lawrimore said the president “will work to swiftly nominate another highly qualified individual” to the fill out the six-member panel.

With his FEC aspirations now gone, von Spakovsky said in an interview Friday that he is “willing to look over all the possibilities” regarding future employment.

“I would like to continue working in this area. I’m a lawyer and I have a lot of expertise in voting, elections and campaign finance,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll end up practicing, speaking and writing.”

In hindsight, the now-former FEC nominee said Friday, while “this has not been an easy process … everything is relative.” When the times got tough, he said, he looked to the experience of his parents, who fled Communist-controlled Yugoslavia decades ago.

“I’m 49. When my father was 50 years old, he had to flee his adoptive homeland to avoid being shot by the Communists,” von Spakovsky said.

“He lost absolutely everything. He came to America and started a whole new life and a new career. I live in a great country and I got a good family — it puts it in perspective.