Three campaign committees with ties to Donald Trump are filing lawsuits aimed at neutering the Federal Election Commission.
The National Rifle Association, a pro-Trump outside group called the 45Committee and Sen. Josh Hawley's campaign have all been accused of campaign finance violations, but all three evaded penalties after Republican commissioners opted against taking action, even after the FEC's own attorneys found reason to believe they broke the law, reported The Daily Beast.
“The goal is to prevent enforcement, and stop our lawsuits from going forward,” said Stuart McPhail, senior counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “But it just furthers public cynicism when you don’t see the law enforced in these gimmicky ways.”
The nonprofit 45Committee was accused of improperly spending tens of millions of dollars to support candidates during the 2016 cycle, including Trump, but the FEC deadlocked last year over whether to enforce its rules, so CLC sued the campaign organization earlier this year in federal court.
The NRA and Hawley's campaign are accused of illegally coordinating on a multimillion-dollar scheme, but the commission -- which includes Hawley's former general counsel Sean Cooksey -- also deadlocked on enforcement, and the CLC and Gabby Giffords' gun safety group sued.
“If GOP commissioners have unilateral authority to kill decisions, and are immune from all political and legal checks on their power, it undermines the public’s faith in the law,” McPhail said.
Congress built an "escape hatch" into its law establishing the FEC, which requires an even partisan split on its six-member board, to get around the likelihood of deadlock by allowing individuals to seek a private right of action in federal court.
The FEC must have a majority to enforce the law, but it also needs four votes to close cases, so the commission's Democratic members have stopped agreeing to close some cases.
That allows plaintiffs to filed lawsuits seeking enforcement -- but Republicans are trying to close that loophole.
“Lawsuits have been filed against the Commission for ‘failing to act’ even though we have, in fact, acted,” wrote the GOP commissioners in a statement in May, claiming Democrats have “misled respondents” touched off "chaos."
The lawsuits filed by the Trump-linked groups are using the Freedom of Information Act to demand the commission's voting records, which are protected by the FOIA itself and the FEC's strict confidentiality requirements, but the complaints allege the commission acted “arbitrarily and capriciously" to force civil litigation.
“It’s actually a criminal violation for FEC employees to break the confidentiality rules,, and the D.C. circuit has given the requirements a broad interpretation in prior litigation," Brett Kappel, an expert in campaign finance law at Harmon Curran. "The lawsuits also challenge the institutional prerogatives of the agency — if they succeed, then everybody could do this.”