Judicial Watch, Inc. v. FEC (1:01CV01747)
On February 17, 2005, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted the FEC’s motion for summary judgment in this case, and denied the plaintiff’s cross motion for summary judgment.
On August 17, 2001, Judicial Watch, Inc., a nonprofit, public interest organization, asked the court to find that the Commission acted contrary to law when it failed to initiate an investigation in response to the organization’s administrative complaint. The April 10, 2001, complaint alleged that Representative Tom DeLay and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) sold meetings with top Bush Administration officials in exchange for campaign contributions to the NRCC. Judicial Watch contended that the NRCC was required to report these meetings to the Commission as “offsets to contributions” under the Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act). 2 U.S.C. §434(b)(4) and 11 CFR 104.3.
The standard for judicial review in a case such as this, where one party alleges that an agency’s actions are contrary to the statute, is called Chevron review, after the Supreme Court’s decision in Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837 (1984). In Chevron review, the court asks first whether Congress has spoken to the precise issue at hand. If so, then the agency’s interpretation of the statute must implement Congress’s unambiguous intent. If, however, Congress has not spoken explicitly to the question at hand, then the court must defer to the agency’s interpretation of the statute if the interpretation is reasonable and is consistent with the statute’s purpose.
In its arguments before the court, the Commission explained that, since its inception in 1975, it has interpreted the statutory requirement of reporting “offsets” to contributions in its strict accounting sense as referring only to financial transactions. Thus, the Commission did not find that the NRCC was required by the Act to report the meetings described in Judicial Watch’s administrative complaint as “offsets” to contributions.
In looking at the language at 2 U.S.C. §434(b)(4), the court found that Congress had not spoken directly to the issue of whether this statutory requirement was meant also to include other non-monetary offsets, such as the alleged contributions-for-access scheme detailed in the plaintiff’s administrative complaint. Furthermore, the court found that the Commission’s interpretation of the statute was not unreasonable, and the “FEC’s decision not to further investigate Judicial Watch’s administrative complaint with regard to section 434(b)(4)(F) was therefore neither contrary to law, arbitrary, capricious, nor an abuse of discretion.”
The plaintiffs had also challenged the Commission’s decision not to investigate beyond the scope of possible violations of this particular provision of the statute, as well as its decision not to report to other law enforcement agencies some or all of the alleged illegal activity described in the administrative complaint. The court, however, found that it is within the FEC’s discretion to determine whether a violation of the Act has occurred, and only then is it directed to conduct an investigation. Furthermore, the court found that while the Commission can refer apparent violations of the law to other law enforcement agencies, such action “is clearly not mandated by the statute and failure to report does not constitute an abuse of discretion.”