America Coming Together (ACT) raised $137 million for its get-out-the-vote effort in 2004, but the FEC found most of that cash came through contributions that violated federal limits.
The group’s big donors included George Soros, Progressive Corp. chairman Peter Lewis and the Service Employees International Union.
The settlement, which the FEC approved unanimously, is the third largest enforcement penalty in the commission’s 33-year history.
ACT, which ceased operations in 2005, was formed in late 2003 and rapidly deployed an enormous organization to do the retail-level grunt work of politics.
It opened more than 90 offices in 17 states from which it mobilized an army of more than 25,000 paid canvassers and volunteers to knock on doors, stuff envelopes and make phone calls urging voters to defeat President Bush and support Democratic or “progressive” candidates including Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate.
The FEC dismissed allegations that that Kerry’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee violated campaign laws by coordinating with ACT or accepting excessive contributions from the group.
ACT was among a new breed of political committee, known as 527 groups, that stretched campaign finance rules on their way to shaping the 2004 elections.
Operatives used the 527s, named for the section of the IRS code under which they were registered, to spend money on politics outside the FEC’s purview.
But the groups have largely faded from the political landscape as the FEC has sought to rein them in. Late last year, commissioners handed down a total of $630,000 in penalties to three top 527s: Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, MoveOn.org and the League of Conservation Voters, and there are more complaints pending.
But the heads of two of the nonprofit campaign finance reform groups behind many of the complaints, including the one that led to the ACT penalty, say it’s all too little, too late.
“This action comes more than three years after our FEC complaints were filed and nearly three years after the 2004 presidential election was held,” read a statement from Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, and Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center.
Plus, they argued, the fine “represents only a tiny fraction” of the amount ACT spent illegally on the 2004 elections.
Wertheimer also is involved in a lawsuit to compel the FEC to pass a set of comprehensive rules regulating 527s, without which he said the groups are likely to reemerge in the 2008 campaign.
UPDATE: ACT issued a statement asserting the settlement “vindicated” the committee by dismissing charges that it coordinated with Kerry and the DNC and by finding ACT did not knowingly or willfully violate the law.
The statement suggested that ACT’s problems were partly attributable to “an uncertain and swiftly changing legal environment throughout 2004” and said the settlement will end “three years of politically motivated charges by the Republican Party and ill-conceived allegations by self-styled campaign finance ‘reform’ groups.”
ACT also touted its “remarkable accomplishments,” including what it called “the single largest general public voter mobilization campaign in American history independently of any political party or candidate campaign. … It is no wonder that the Republican Party responded by trying to force the organization to divert its resources from progressive political activism to defending its legal right to exist.”
Also weighing in was the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which filed a complaint with the EC against ACT because its contributions from SEIU came from members’ dues.
“The big problem with the FEC's enforcement action,” according to foundation executive Stefan Gleason is that “not one cent of the millions of dollars illegally funneled into federal election activity will be returned to the unionized workers forced to foot the bill as a condition of employment.”