Commentary

Common Cause Hires Alleged Election Lawbreaker

The Washington interest group Common Cause never tires of denouncing money in politics. Their efforts last year prompted Congress to pass the McCain-Feingold restrictions on campaign finance. For Common Cause, money always corrupts politics, and federal restrictions on campaign finance must be respected in letter and spirit. Perhaps it is time to say to Common Cause, “physician, heal thyself.”

Earlier this year Common Cause hired a new president, Chellie Pingree, who had run unsuccessfully in 2002 for the U.S. Senate from Maine. Candidates for the Senate must raise money within the contribution limits set by federal law. During her losing effort against Sen. Susan Collins, according to the Boston Globe, Pingree “invited donors to circumvent the limits on contributions to candidates for federal office.” In July 2002, Pingree sent a solicitation letter that suggested how to give more to her campaign ”if you have already given Chellie Pingree for US Senate the maximum contribution.” Her letter suggested contributions to a state party fund and a national party fund, and encouraged donors to ask their families and friends to contribute.

Soliciting such “soft money” was legal when Pingree sent her letter but only for contributions to political parties. Pingree clearly left the impression with her donors that these soft money contributions would go to her campaign. And that’s reportedly against the law. Larry Noble, a former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission, said Pingree’s letter “impermissibly solicits soft money for a federal candidate.” Other experts are more direct. The incoming chairman of the American Bar Association’s standing committee on election law, said Pingree’s letter ”clearly and inarguably” violated federal law.

Soliciting soft money also seems an odd qualification to head Common Cause. Last December, the interim head of the group, Don Simon, said that soft money funds “lead to the sale of access and influence and create the appearance of corruption.” If we assume Simon is correct, Common Cause has hired as its president a former candidate for office who allegedly both sold access and influence and was apparently corrupt. When you add the fact she apparently violated federal election law by misleading potential contributors about their donations, you begin to wonder just what Common Cause stands for.

Pingree also has little respect for the laws she demands that others follow. In early August 2002, the Federal Election Commission sent a five-page letter to the treasurer of Pingree’s Senate campaign. The letter asked about contributions to her campaign that appeared to violate the donation limits set by federal law. The letter warned Pingree that “the acceptance of excessive contributions is a serious problem” and that her campaign should reform itself to avoid violating the law. The FEC letter noted several other problems with her campaign and asked for a response within 15 days.

If you received an official letter from a federal agency saying you might have violated federal law, wouldn’t you act promptly to clear up the matter, especially if you thought the law was vital to the integrity of our government? Certainly the FEC would have heard from most Americans within 15 days.

The Pingree campaign stonewalled and did nothing.

On Aug. 29, 2002, the FEC sent out a second letter, noting the silence of the Pingree campaign and giving them a second deadline. Again, the Pingree campaign did not reply.

Pingree now says ignoring the FEC inquiry was simply an oversight with no larger implications. Yet the Pingree campaign clearly did not take either federal election law or the agency that administers it, the FEC, seriously. They ignored two official letters from the agency, both of which said they apparently violated federal election law. It’s hard to believe that an official letter saying you may have committed a federal crime would simply be overlooked by the Pingree campaign.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.