Walther v. FEC
On April 17, 1979, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied the FEC's motion to dismiss the claim of Henry L. Walther in a suit filed against the FEC on November 21, 1978, in accordance with 2 U.S.C. §437g(a)(9).
The plaintiff contended that the Commission had acted contrary to law in dismissing 45 complaints filed with the Commission by Mr. Walther and the National Right to Work Committee pursuant to 2 U.S.C. §437g(a)(1). Each complaint asserted that both a candidate for federal office and the candidate's committee had accepted illegal contributions in excess of the $5,000 contribution limitation established by 2 U.S.C. §441a(a)(2)(A). The complainants claimed that the alleged violations had occurred when contributions were accepted from both the AFL-CIO political committee (COPE) and from political committees set up by member unions of the AFL-CIO (union committees).
The plaintiff contended that COPE and some union committees were subject to the same control and, therefore, shared one contribution limitation under 441a(a)(5). (The 441a(a)(5) anti proliferation provision provides that contributions from separate PACs which are "established or financed or maintained or controlled" by the same person or group of persons shall be considered to have been made by a single political committee.)
The FEC contended, on the other hand, that as a matter of law, 441a(a)(5) was not intended by Congress to apply to the relationship between the AFL-CIO Federation and its membership (union locals). The FEC also maintained that since the agency had publicly construed the anti proliferation provision to exclude cooperation between COPE and union PACs, no candidate could knowingly violate the statute by accepting contributions from both. (In 1977, the FEC had dismissed a complaint filed by the National Right to Work Committee against the AFL-CIO, which had alleged that the AFL-CIO and member unions were affiliated. The National Right to Work Committee never appealed that determination to the court.) Therefore, the FEC filed a motion to dismiss the case.
The court identified the central question presented by the Commission's motion to dismiss as one of statutory construction: What is the correct application of 441a(a)(5) to the relationship between COPE and union committees?
After examining the language of the statute and the policy underlying the Act, the court refused to accept the FEC's interpretation of the statute for the following reasons:
- The court found nothing in the anti proliferation language of 441a(a)(5) to support the proposition that certain PACs were intended to be excluded from its scope. On the contrary, the statute enunciates an inclusionary rule wherein the PACs of a labor organization and its locals are automatically treated as one PAC. The statute does not identify any relationships excepted from the 441a(a)(5) rule.
- The court accepted neither the FEC's reliance on the legislative history of the statute nor its interpretation of that history to support the FEC position that COPE and union PACs were intended to be exempt from the anti proliferation provision.
- FEC regulations, cited by the Commission in support of its position, declare the circumstances under which two PACs will always be treated as one. The court determined that cited regulations do not address the issue at hand: when two PACs are never treated as one.
Accordingly, the court concluded that 441a(a)(5) applies to all political committees controlled by the same person or group of persons except for certain exemptions not relevant to this case. Therefore, the relationship alleged by the plaintiff may constitute a violation. Furthermore, the court rejected the FEC's contention that the agency's interpretation of the statute precluded commission of civil or criminal violations of the Act by candidates. The court concluded that, although an incorrect administrative interpretation may have some bearing on determining whether or not a party acted knowingly, it does not provide immunity to the party.
Finally, in denying the FEC motion to dismiss, the court held that the plaintiff had alleged facts sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss. However, the court pointed out that this opinion could not be construed as concluding that a violation had occurred or that the FEC had actually failed to perform its statutory duty.
Cross-motions for summary judgment were filed. On June 15, 1979, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted summary judgment to the FEC.
Based on the standard of judicial review that only arbitrary and capricious administrative actions of an agency may be reversed, the court determined that the Commission's decision not to investigate Walther's complaints was "eminently reasonable." The court characterized the Walther complaints as a "shambles" containing serious shortcomings.