Stark v. FEC
On August 20, 1987, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an order dismissing with prejudice a complaint brought by Congressman Fortney H. "Pete" Stark, a Democrat from California, in Stark v. FEC; (Civil Action No. 87-1024.) Congressman Stark had sought a court order requiring the FEC to act within 120 days on his administrative complaint, which he had filed in 1986 against his Republican opponent and the opponent's supporters. Since the FEC had taken final action on Congressman Stark's complaint by dismissing it on June 8, 1987, the court dismissed it on June 9, 1987, as moot.
On February 8, 1988, the court dismissed another suit brought by Congressman Stark against the Commission in Stark v. FEC; Civil Action No. 87-1700. The court found that the Commission had not acted contrary to law in dismissing, in a deadlock vote, Congressman Stark's complaint. The court accordingly granted judgment in the Commission's favor.
Shortly before election day in 1986, Congressman Stark filed an administrative complaint that alleged, among other things, that excessive contributions made to Daniel M. Williams' 1986 Congressional campaign by the American Medical Association Political Action Committee (AMPAC) resulted in violations of the election law by both parties. (AMPAC is the separate segregated fund of the American Medical Association.) In the complaint, Congressman Stark also alleged other violations of the election law's contribution limits by the American Medical Association (AMA), AMPAC and certain state PACs affiliated with AMPAC.
After a preliminary review of the complaint as amended in February 1987, the General Counsel's Office recommended that the Commission find no reason to believe AMPAC's affiliates had violated the law.
With regard to the other allegation, the General Counsel recommended that the Commission find reason to believe that AMPAC had violated the law by making excessive contributions to the Williams campaign and that the Williams campaign had violated the law by accepting them. (See 2 U.S.C. §§441a(a) and (f).) The General Counsel's staff found that AMPAC had made three mailings to its membership describing Williams' positions on certain issues and advocating Williams' election. One of the mailings had also solicited funds for Williams' campaign. The solicitation mailing included pre-addressed envelopes for donors to mail their contributions directly to candidates and pledge cards pre-addressed to AMPAC, which AMPAC could use to verify donors' contributions.
AMPAC claimed that its spending for the mailings constituted independent expenditures. However, citing an advisory opinion that dealt with a similar situation (AO 1980-46), the General Counsel reasoned that AMPAC's expenditures for the solicitation mailing constituted in-kind contributions to the Williams campaign. (In AO 1980-46, the Commission had decided that expenditures by a PAC to facilitate earmarked contributions to candidates constituted in-kind contributions to candidates rather than independent expenditures on their behalf.)
Furthermore, the General Counsel found that, taken together, the circumstances of the mailings were sufficient to indicate that AMPAC and the Williams campaign might not have remained at arms length throughout the campaign. For example, the General Counsel found that AMPAC's substantial spending on behalf of the Williams campaign, when compared with the low spending by the campaign itself, raised questions concerning the independence of AMPAC's expenditures.
Pursuant to 2 U.S.C. §437g(a)(8)(C), Congressman Stark asked the court to declare that the FEC acted contrary to law by failing to act on his administrative complaint within 120 days after he filed it in October 1986. (Civil Action No. 87-1024, April 14, 1987.)
Congressman Stark further asked the court to:
- Issue an order directing the FEC to act on the complaint within 30 days, as required by 2 U.S.C. §437g;
- Declare that Commissioner Lee Ann Elliott should recuse herself from any further participation in the FEC's consideration of the complaint, consistent with Canon 4 of the Canons of Judicial Ethics; and
- Retain jurisdiction over the suit, so that, if the FEC failed to act on his complaint, Congressman Stark could bring a separate suit against defendant AMPAC. (In a stipulation filed with the court on May 8, 1987, Congressman Stark agreed to voluntarily dismiss his claim against AMA and AMPAC, both defendants in the suit.)
On June 9, 1987, the Commission voted to accept the General Counsel's recommendation to dismiss the allegation concerning excessive contributions by AMPAC's affiliates. However, the Commissioners were divided by a series of 3-3 votes on the General Counsel's recommendation concerning AMPAC's alleged excessive in-kind contributions to the Williams campaign. Since the Commission can act only on "the affirmative vote of four members," the agency voted unanimously to close the enforcement file. Consequently, Congressman Stark's first suit was dismissed from the district court as moot following the Commission's final action.
District court ruling in second suit
Congressman Stark filed a second suit asking the district court to find the FEC's dismissal of his administrative complaint to be contrary to law (Civil Action No. 87-1700, June 22, 1987).
Following a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit in Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) v. FEC (831 F.2d 1131 (D.C. Cir. 1987)), the district court held that it could review the case because the provision of the election law affording judicial review of dismissals "imposes neither vote count nor substantive-issue conditions on the right it confers." (See 2 U.S.C. §437g(a)(8)(A).)
The court noted, however, that, unlike the DCCC case, the Stark case included a statement from Commissioner Thomas Josefiak setting forth his reasons for voting against the General Counsel's recommendations. Commissioner Lee Ann Elliott filed a concurrence with that statement.
The court observed that in their statements the dissenting Commissioners had said that they disagreed with the conclusion of AO 1980-46, the advisory opinion that the General Counsel had cited in arguing that AMPAC's solicitation expenditures might be in-kind contributions. Thus, concluded the Commissioners, the rationale of that opinion should not be extended beyond the facts presented in that case. The Commissioners argued that independent expenditures (e.g., AMPAC's expenditures for contribution envelopes sent to candidate Williams' potential donors) did not lose their independence because the candidate subsequently derived indirect benefit from them.
Further, the dissenting Commissioners rejected the idea that a "dollar disparity" between AMPAC's spending and spending by the Williams campaign implied cooperation between the two committees. The Commissioners also rejected Congressman Stark's allegations concerning a "debate arrangement" made by AMPAC and the duplication of Williams' campaign materials by AMPAC for solicitation purposes.
In determining whether the dissenting Commissioners acted reasonably in voting to dismiss the Stark allegations, the court found that the DCCC case required "that the same deference be accorded the reasoning of 'dissenting' Commissioners who prevent Commission action by voting to deadlock as is given the reasoning of the Commission when it acts [by at least four affirmative votes] as a body to dismiss a complaint."
Accordingly, the court concluded that the dissenting Commissioners' statement of reasons was "'sufficiently reasonable,' if not 'the only reasonable [decision] or even the [one] the court would have reached' on the General Counsel's Report on his findings.... "