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FEC v. Franklin


On September 27, 1989, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit granted the FEC's motion for summary affirmance in FEC v. William Franklin (No. 89-1512). The appeals court remanded the case to the district court (Civil Action No. 89-324-N).


In October 1988 Mr. Robb, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in Virginia, filed a complaint with the Commission alleging that Mr. Franklin's unknown employer had violated the election law by failing to report payments made to Mr. Franklin to investigate rumors linking the candidate with persons allegedly implicated in drug use or drug trafficking. Mr. Franklin was a private investigator and an attorney working in Virginia. Conducted during the height of the 1988 campaign, Mr. Franklin's investigation was the subject of several news stories.

The Robb campaign also alleged that the contribution limits may have been violated by Mr. Franklin's client.

After finding "reason to believe" that the law had been violated, the Commission sent Mr. Franklin a questionnaire about the nature and purpose of his investigation and asking on whose behalf it was conducted. Mr. Franklin answered some of the questions, but he refused to identify the person who had hired him, invoking attorney-client privilege. The FEC subsequently obtained a court order requiring Mr. Franklin to respond fully to the questions.

Along with ordering Mr. Franklin to identify his employer, the court ordered the FEC not to disclose the identity of that person until a formal enforcement action commenced, or the individual waived confidentiality, or until disclosure was mandated by the election law.

District court decision

Mr. Franklin challenged the FEC's actions on four grounds:

  • The FEC lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the original complaint because the Robb campaign had identified only "John Doe, Employer of William Franklin" as the respondent. This fact, Mr. Franklin argued, prevented the FEC from fulfilling its statutory requirements in acting on the complaint.
  • The complaint from the Robb campaign was inadequate to launch an FEC investigation.
  • The FEC's finding of "reason to believe" was arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law.
  • Attorney-client privilege permitted him to preserve the anonymity of his client.

The court rejected all of these arguments.

In ruling on the FEC's jurisdiction, the court concluded that the Commission had fulfilled its statutory requirements in acting on the complaint to the extent that it was possible. The election law requires that the Commission notify respondents of complaints filed against them; the Commission must also give such persons the opportunity to respond to the allegations. 2 U.S.C. §437g(a)(1). Although the Commission did not know the name of the respondent, the court found that the Commission had "met the requirements of the law" by communicating with the unknown respondent through Mr. Franklin.

The court also rejected Mr. Franklin's argument that the Robb complaint was inadequate on the grounds that it did not identify the respondent or allege "a clear and concise recitation of the facts which describe a violation," as required under 11 CFR 111.4(d)(3). "While the complaint did not identify the respondent by name," the court said, "the complaint clearly identified the employer of Franklin as the respondent." The court further said that the regulations did not require "a complete factual and legal account of a violation." Filing a complaint is only the first step in the enforcement process, the court emphasized.

With regard to Mr. Franklin's charge that the Commission's "reason to believe" finding was contrary to law, the court observed that "agency actions are not generally ripe for judicial review" unless they constitute "final agency actions." In most cases, a "reason to believe" finding is a preliminary action in the enforcement process, leading to a formal investigation. It is not a final action. Furthermore, the court noted, "reason to believe" findings have not previously been reviewed by courts unless the alleged violation was novel or unless the press exemption to the reporting requirements was at issue. The Robb complaint involved neither novel issues nor the press exemption. Adding that Mr. Franklin had not demonstrated that an FEC investigation would injure himself or his client, the court rejected Mr. Franklin's argument that the Commission's finding was "contrary to law."

The court also found that Mr. Franklin had not established that the attorney-client privilege applied to his case. Although he was a practicing attorney, Mr. Franklin was questioned by the FEC about his activity as a private investigator. " Franklin has not demonstrated that the client retained him in his capacity as an attorney or that [he] provided legal advice to the client relating to Franklin 's investigation," the court saId.

For these reasons, the court ordered Mr. Franklin to provide written answers to the FEC's questions within 75 days. Furthermore, the court ordered that "upon pain of contempt, no member or employee of the FEC, or any other person, disclose to any person who is not a member or employee of the FEC with a need to know" the identity of Franklin 's client in the Robb investigation. This protective order would apply unless and until a formal enforcement action was begun, or Franklin 's client waived confidentiality restrictions, or disclosure was otherwise required by the law.

Mr. Franklin appealed the decision.

Appeals court decision

On September 27, 1989, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit granted the FEC's motion for summary affirmance. The appeals court remanded the case to the district court, which on September 29 ordered Mr. Franklin to provide the Commission with "full and complete answers to the extent of his knowledge to each and every question propounded to him" by the agency. The court ordered the defendant to provide the answers within 5 days.

On the direction of the appeals court, the district court also vacated a protective order that it had imposed in July.

Source:   FEC Record — March 1990; and September 1989. FEC v. Franklin, 718 F. Supp. 1272, aff'd in part, (E.D. Va.), 902 F.2d 3 (4th Cir. 1989).