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How to file a complaint with the FEC

The Federal Election Commission administers and enforces the laws that govern the financing of elections for federal office—the U.S. House, Senate and President. Other election-related laws are not within the FEC’s jurisdiction. Any person may file a complaint with the Commission if he or she believes a violation of the federal election campaign laws or FEC regulations has occurred or is about to occur. The Commission reviews every complaint filed. If the Commission finds that a violation occurred, possible outcomes can range from a letter reiterating compliance obligations to a conciliation agreement, which may include a monetary civil penalty. All FEC enforcement matters are kept confidential until they are resolved.

Filing a complaint and early stages of complaint process

Filing the complaint

By law, all complaints must be made in writing and must provide the full name and address of the person filing the complaint (the "complainant"). They must be signed, sworn to, and notarized, meaning that the notary's certificate must state that the complaint was "signed and sworn to before me" or must indicate that the complainant affirmed the complaint "under penalty of perjury." Complaints must be sent to the FEC at:

Office of General Counsel

Federal Election Commission
1050 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20463

In order for the complaint to be considered complete and proper, it should clearly recite the facts that show specific violations under the Commission's jurisdiction and clearly identify each person, committee, group, or entity that is alleged to have committed a violation (the "respondent").

Citations to the law and regulations are not required, but the complaint should include any documentation supporting the allegations and differentiate between statements based on the complainant's personal knowledge and those based on information and belief. Statements not based on personal knowledge should identify the source of the information.

Self-reported complaints

The law allows those who believe they may have violated the law to report themselves to the Commission. For self-reported complaints ("sua sponte" submissions), the submission should include a description of the statutory or regulatory violation, a complete recitation of the facts along with all relevant documentation pertaining to the violation, an explanation of how the violation was discovered, the internal investigative and corrective actions taken in response to the violation, including whether any new post-discovery compliance measures have been instituted, and what other agencies, if any, are investigating the violation.

The Commission seeks to increase the number of self-reported submissions in order to expedite enforcement of the law. To encourage self-reporting, the Commission will generally negotiate penalties between 25 and 75 percent lower than those for matters arising through other means, such as complaints or the Commission's own review of reports. Full disclosure of the violation and full cooperation with the Commission will be factors in assessing the civil penalty reduction.

In certain circumstances, the Commission may allow committees who voluntarily report their violations and make a complete report of their internal investigation to proceed directly into conciliation before the Commission makes a finding as to whether there is reason to believe the committee violated campaign finance laws or Commission regulations.

Early stages of the complaint process

The Office of General Counsel (OGC) reviews each complaint to determine whether it states a violation within the FEC’s jurisdiction and satisfies the criteria for a proper complaint. If the complaint does not meet these requirements, OGC notifies the complainant of the deficiencies. Once a complaint is deemed sufficient, OGC assigns it a Matter Under Review (MUR) number, acknowledges receipt of the complaint and informs the complainant that the Commission will notify him or her when the entire case is resolved. Until then, the Commission is required by law to keep its actions regarding the MUR confidential.

Notice to respondents

Within five days after receiving a proper complaint, OGC sends each respondent a copy of the complaint and a description of the Commission's compliance procedures. The respondent has 15 days from the date of receipt to respond in writing, explaining why no action should be taken. In the case of a complaint that does not satisfy the requirements, the respondent nevertheless receives a copy of the complaint and a letter explaining that the complainant has 15 days to correct the complaint. If the complainant corrects and refiles the complaint, the respondent is sent a copy of the corrected complaint and is given 15 days to submit a response to the Commission.

Respondent's counsel

A respondent who intends to be represented by legal counsel must inform the Commission by sending a "statement of designation of counsel." This document must include a statement authorizing the counsel to receive all communications from the Commission on behalf of the respondent and include the counsel's name, address, and telephone number, and it must be signed by the respondent. Once the Commission receives this document, the agency will communicate only with counsel unless otherwise authorized by the respondent.

Commission action – case processing

After the 15-day response period has elapsed, OGC evaluates the case using objective criteria approved by the Commission under its enforcement priority system. Cases are prioritized and maintained in the Enforcement Division’s Office of Complaints Examining & Legal Administration (CELA) or in some instances are referred to either the Alternative Dispute Resolution Office or the Administrative Fine Program. Cases warranting further OGC examination are assigned to attorneys in the Enforcement Division. Cases not warranting the further use of Commission resources are recommended for dismissal.

Initial vote to proceed – “reason to believe”

OGC reports each case assigned to an attorney to the Commission and recommends whether or not there is "reason to believe" the respondent has committed or is about to commit a violation of the law or whether the Commission should dismiss the allegation on other grounds. The Commissioners make the final decision by voting for or against OGC’s recommendation. Four affirmative votes are required to go forward with any enforcement action.

In casting their votes, the Commissioners consider the complaint, the respondent's reply, relevant committee reports on the public record, other available information on the public record and the General Counsel's analyses and recommendations. In the initial stages of the process, the Commission will take one of the following actions:

  • Find reason to believe;
  • Dismiss the matter;
  • Dismiss the matter, but send a caution letter; or
  • Find no reason to believe.

If the Commission decides there is no "reason to believe" a violation has occurred or is about to occur with respect to all of the allegations, or if the Commission dismisses the matter, the case is closed and the parties involved are notified. If, on the other hand, the Commission finds that there is "reason to believe" the respondent has violated or is about to violate the law, the Commission may either open an investigation or enter directly into conciliation discussions with the respondent.

Early resolution of complaint; Investigation

Early resolution of complaint (pre-probable cause conciliation)

Prior to, or in lieu of, investigation and before the Commission mails the respondent the OGC brief containing probable cause recommendations, the respondent may submit a written request that the matter be resolved through pre-probable cause conciliation negotiations. In some cases, the Commission proposes a written conciliation agreement to resolve the matter at the same time it notifies the respondent of the RTB finding. The respondent must reply to the General Counsel's invitation to enter into such negotiations within seven days of the receipt of the offer. Pre-probable cause discussions, which are generally limited to 60 days (absent an extension), may result in a conciliation agreement between the respondent and the Commission, thereby resolving the matter.

If the General Counsel and the respondent negotiate a conciliation agreement, the written agreement becomes effective once it is approved by the affirmative vote of at least four commissioners and signed by the respondent and the Office of General Counsel. Generally, the agreement includes a description of the facts and the law, admissions of the violations by the respondent, restrictions on future conduct or remedial actions the respondent must take and a provision for the payment of a civil penalty by the respondent. The General Counsel sends a copy of the signed agreement to the respondent and, when the case is closed, to the complainant as well.

If negotiations do not resolve the matter, however, the General Counsel may send the respondent a probable cause brief. The respondent has 15 days to submit a reply brief.

Investigation

At the beginning of an investigation, the Commission sends a letter notifying the respondent of the RTB finding and a written Factual and Legal Analysis that sets forth the basis for the Commission’s determination. The letter informs the respondent of the opportunity to submit a written reply and may include questions for the respondent to answer. As part of its investigation, the Commission may issue orders requiring sworn written answers and subpoenas requiring a person to testify to or to produce documents. If necessary, the Commission may ask a federal district court to enforce these orders and subpoenas. The investigation may also include less formal procedures, such as investigative interviews, and may involve parties other than the respondents who may have information pertinent to the complaint. The investigation may include an audit of the respondent.

Post-investigative steps and case resolution

Post-investigative steps: Conciliation or General Counsel's brief

After the investigation is completed, the General Counsel can recommend that the Commission enter into pre-probable cause conciliation. If it appears that conciliation is not likely to be successful, the General Counsel prepares a brief that explains the factual and legal issues of the case and recommends whether the Commission should find there is probable cause to believe a violation has occurred or is about to occur. The respondent is sent a copy of the brief and has 15 days to file a reply brief explaining the respondent's position.

Probable cause hearing

Respondents in enforcement matters may request a hearing to present oral arguments directly to the Commission prior to a finding of probable cause. Such a hearing may be requested by the respondent in his or her reply brief. The request for a hearing is optional, and the respondent's decision to request one will not influence the Commission's decision regarding a probable cause finding.

Vote on violations

After reviewing the briefs of both the General Counsel and the respondent, the Commission votes on whether there is "probable cause to believe" that a violation has occurred or is about to occur. If the commission decides there is "no probable cause to believe," the case is closed and the parties are notified. If the Commission determines that there is "probable cause to believe" the law has been violated, the General Counsel attempts (for at least 30 days) to correct or prevent the violation through a written conciliation agreement with the respondent.

Conciliation agreement

A post-probable cause conciliation agreement is effectively the same as a pre-probable cause conciliation agreement from the administrative standpoint. The written agreement becomes effective once it is approved by the affirmative vote of at least four commissioners and signed by the respondent and the Office of General Counsel and includes the same items that would be set forth in a pre-probable cause agreement.

If conciliation does not result in an agreement after at least 30 days, the Commission may file suit against the respondent in federal district court.

Complainant's recourse; Confidentiality; Timeframes

Complainant's recourse

A complainant who disagrees with the Commission's dismissal of a complaint or who believes the Commission failed to act in a timely manner may file a petition in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In the case of a Commission dismissal, the petition has to be filed within 60 days after the date of dismissal.

Confidentiality

To protect the interests of those involved in a complaint, the law requires that any Commission action on a MUR be kept strictly confidential until the case is resolved. These provisions do not, however, prevent a complainant or respondent from disclosing the substance of the complaint itself or the response to that complaint or from engaging in conduct that leads to the publication of information contained in the complaint. Nevertheless, information about a Commission notification of findings or about a Commission investigation may not be disclosed, unless the respondent waives his or her right to confidentiality in writing.

Because the public has the right to know the outcome of any enforcement proceeding, a redacted case file is made available to the public in the Press Office and Office of Public Records within 30 days after the parties involved have been notified that the entire case has been closed. Closed case files are also available for review on the Commission's website.

Timeframes

Stage Number of Days
Complaint received
Complaint notification 5 days
Response to complaint 15 days
RTB findings
Investigation
Pre-probable cause conciliation 60 days
General Counsel's brief
Response to General Counsel's brief 15 days
Probable cause to believe
Probable cause to believe conciliation 30-90 days
Disposition