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Common Cause v. FEC (85-1130)


On June 19, 1990, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed a district court decision by ruling that the FEC did not adequately analyze an affiliation issue in its dismissal of an administrative complaint filed by Common Cause. (Civil Action No. 89-5231.) The court remanded the case to the district court with instructions to return the matter to the FEC for reconsideration consistent with the appeals court ruling.


Common Cause filed an administrative complaint with the FEC alleging that the Republican National Independent Expenditure Committee (RNIEC) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) were affiliated committees and that RNIEC's expenditures on behalf of then-Senator Dan Evans' 1984 reelection campaign were coordinated with NRSC. As a result, Common Cause contended, contributions made by the two committees on behalf of Mr. Evans exceeded the contribution limits of 2 U.S.C. §441a. The Commission found no probable cause to believe that a violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act had occurred.

After the Commission dismissed the administrative complaint, Common Cause filed suit in 1985 with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. (Civil Action No. 85-1130). Common Cause asked the court to find that RNIEC and NRSC were affiliated committees, or that they had coordinated their expenditures on behalf of Senator Evans. (Either finding would have resulted in excessive contributions by NRSC.)

District court decision

In its decision of May 30, 1989, the court found that the Commission's dismissal of Common Cause's principal allegations-affiliation and coordination between RNIEC and NRSC-was reasonable. The court did remand one issue from the original complaint-that of affiliation between RNIEC and the Republican National Committee-back to the FEC for further consideration, finding that the Commission had not addressed that allegation in dismissing the administrative complaint.

Appeals court decision

In its per curiam opinion, the appeals court noted the deference accorded by the courts to FEC decisions. However, in considering the General Counsel's brief recommending the "no probable cause to believe" finding adopted by the Commission, the court found that "the brief lacks any discussion of the affiliation issue that is independent of the analysis of the separate coordination issue."

Common Cause's affiliation claim was based on three facts: (1) Mr. Rodney Smith served as the financial director and treasurer of NRSC until two months before he co-founded and became treasurer of RNIEC; (2) Senator John Heinz continued to be a member of NRSC a short time after he co-founded and joined the advisory panel of RNIEC; and (3) there was a substantial overlap in contributors to the two committees, the result of RNIEC's use of NRSC's mailing list.

Section 441a(a)(5) of the Act defines affiliated committees as those that are "established or financed or maintained or controlled" by the same person or group. Commission regulations then in effect listed several indicia of affiliation at 11 CFR 100.5(g)(2)(ii)(A)-(E). (Current FEC rules provide revised indicia at 11 CFR 100.5(g)(4)(ii)(A)-(J).) The court stated that the General Counsel's brief made no attempt to tie the relevant indicia of affiliation to the facts of the case. As a result, there was no indication that the agency had considered one pertinent indicium of affiliation: whether Mr. Smith or Senator Heinz had the ability to influence the decisions of both committees. 11 CFR 100.5(g)(2)(ii)(C) (since revised at 100.5(g)(4)(ii)(B)).

Another indicium set out in the rules is whether two committees show a similar pattern of contributions. 11 CFR 100.5(g)(2)(ii)(D) (since revised at 100.5(g)(4)(ii)(J)). The General Counsel's brief did not specifically refer to this indicium. The appeals court found this issue "less troubling" since the brief considered possible affiliation resulting from RNIEC's use of RNSC's contributor list but went on to explain that this implication was rebutted by the committees' dispute over the ownership of the list.

In conclusion the court stated: "Based upon the General Counsel's brief to the Commission, it is impossible to discern whether the FEC applied the applicable statute and regulation to the claim that the NRSC and the RNIEC were affiliated." The court therefore reversed the judgment of the district court on the affiliation issue and remanded the case with instructions for the FEC to reconsider the issue based on the court's decision.

Source:   FEC RecordAugust 1990. Common Cause v. FEC, 715 F. Supp. 398 (D.D.C. 1989) rev'd, 906 F.2d 705 (D.C. Cir. 1990).