The liberal grassroots organization MoveOn asked the Department of Justice on Tuesday to initiate a criminal investigation into the US Chamber of Commerce, alleging the group is directly or indirectly soliciting political donations from foreign sources.

The Chamber, the nation's largest and most powerful business lobby, naturally denies the allegations, but is closely aligned with independent Republican campaign groups that have been thriving this election season thanks to newly realigned campaign finance laws that allow most donors to remain anonymous.

"On behalf of the more than five million members of Political Action across the nation, I am writing to request that the Department [of Justice] initiate an immediate criminal investigation into the use by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of contributions by foreign nationals to pay for advertising advocating the election or defeat of candidates for federal office," wrote MoveOn's executive director, Justin Ruben. "Information brought to light today by Think Progress, a project of the nonpartisan nonprofit organization Center for American Progress Action Fund, strongly implies that the Chamber has willfully violated federal campaign finance laws that outlaw the use of foreign cash in U.S. elections."

MoveOn's letter to Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer came after the Center for American Progress published findings of an investigation showing the Chamber funds its political ad buying from a general account that accepts foreign donations.

On the group's blog, ThinkProgress, Lee Fang wrote:

In recent years, the Chamber has become very aggressive with its fundraising, opening offices abroad and helping to found foreign chapters (known as Business Councils or “AmChams”). While many of these foreign operations include American businesses with interests overseas, the Chamber has also spearheaded an effort to raise money from foreign corporations, including ones controlled by foreign governments. These foreign members of the Chamber send money either directly to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, or the foreign members fund their local Chamber, which in turn, transfers dues payments back to the Chamber’s H Street office in Washington DC.


Previously, it has been reported that foreign firms like BP, Shell Oil, and Siemens are active members of the Chamber. But on a larger scale, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce appears to rely heavily on fundraising from firms all over the world, including China, India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Russia, and many other places. Of course, because the Chamber successfully lobbied to kill campaign finance reforms aimed at establishing transparency, the Chamber does not have to reveal any of the funding for its ad campaigns. Dues-paying members of the Chamber could potentially be sending additional funds this year to help air more attack ads against Democrats.

The allegations were strongly denied by Chamber spokesman J.P. Fielder, who emailed Politico's Ben Smith, saying:

"No foreign money - from AmChams of otherwise - is used to fund political activities."

An earlier statement from the Chamber assured Politico readers that they "have a system" to keep foreign donations from going toward US political activities. It did not elaborate on what that system is, how it works or who oversees it.

"The Chamber has claimed that it 'has a system in place' to prevent foreign funding of its political activities," MoveOn continued. "But the solicitation of foreign money, from companies being told simultaneously of the importance of the U.S. elections, and the use of that money by the Chamber at a time when it is spending millions on political advertising, is a violation of this ban on indirect receipt and acceptance of foreign contributions, even if the Chamber purports to maintain some artificial segregation of the funds its uses for that political advertising."

Thanks to the Supreme Court's recent toppling of key campaign finance laws, 2010's independent political interest groups have spent more than five times the amount doled out during the last mid-terms in 2006.

MoveOn's letter, as published by The Huffington Post, follows.

Editor's note: This clarifies an earlier report that stated Democrats were calling for the DOJ probe. -D.Sweet

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