A liberal blogger has jumped into The New York Times-MoveOn.org-Rudy Giuliani fracas, filing a complaint against the former New York City mayor’s presidential campaign.
Lane Hudson, who in recent weeks has sought to carve out a niche as something of an election law vigilante, alleges in a complaint filed Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission that the Giuliani campaign broke election laws by accepting a discounted ad rate from The New York Times.
Giuliani has gotten significant political mileage leveling the same allegation at MoveOn.org and The New York Times over an ad the liberal political action committee ran in the paper this month attacking Army Gen. David Petraeus.
And this weekend, The New York Times’ public editor admitted in his column that the ad violated the newspaper’s policies regarding rates — and possibly content as well.
That prompted MoveOn.org to announce it would pay the difference between the discounted rate it received and the full price.
The offer only emboldened foes of the liberal political group and of the paper, which — critics gleefully pointed out — could become ensnared in the campaign finance rules it has aggressively advocated.
The paper’s revelation also increased the volume of cries for congressional and FEC investigations into the ad, which ran under the headline “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?”
But Hudson said Giuliani’s campaign is the one that has some answering to do.
“There’s no difference in how MoveOn got their ad and how the Giuliani campaign got their ad,” Hudson told Politico.
Hudson, who attracted attention last year by posting the e-mails that helped break the Mark Foley scandal, last month filed an FEC complaint alleging Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson violated so-called “testing the waters” rules by running a full-fledged campaign while shielding his finances from the commission.
Now he’s calling on the Giuliani campaign to pay the difference between the discounted and full rates.
That’s not going to happen, said Giuliani campaign spokeswoman Maria Comella, who said in a statement that her boss’ ad was consistent with the Times’ ad rates and policy prohibiting personal attack ads.
The Times charges one rate for customers seeking a guarantee their ads will run on a specific date, and a lower rate for customers whose ads run “standby,” meaning they can request a certain date, but aren’t promised it.
After the MoveOn.org ad ran, Giuliani said “I call upon The New York Times to give us the same rate — the discount — the heavily discounted rate they gave MoveOn.org for that abominable ad” and to let him choose the day.
Though he got both the rate and the day, Comella said it “was placed at the standby rate with no commitment it would run on a specific date.”
In response to the Sunday column by Times’ Public Editor Clark Hoyt, MoveOn.org announced it would wire the Times $77,000 — the difference between the discounted rate and the $142,000 full price.
That didn’t satisfy Comella, who said “nothing can make up for the fact that the MoveOn.org ad was so egregious, even The New York Times admits it did not meet its own standards for placement.”
Nor did it placate the American Conservative Union, which had previously filed an FEC complaint alleging the Times discount amounted to an illegal in-kind corporate contribution.
“There was intent here to violate the law,” said Bill Lauderback, the group’s vice president. He called on the FEC to fine both the Times and MoveOn.org. “You can’t simply argue, ‘Well, we didn’t mean to.’”
Actually, you can. And federal election law generlly grants a 30-day window for refunding contributions that appear to be illegal.
Technically, the FEC, which would acknowledge only that it received the MoveOn.org complaint, could determine that the brief time in which MoveOn.org benefited from the discount constituted an illegal corporate loan.
But the agency is not known for taking such an aggressive approach to enforcement and the episode may prove more significant for the rhetorical ammunition it is providing.
Foes of campaign finance rules joined in, merrily pointing out that the Times may have run afoul of the campaign laws its editorial board has backed aggressively.
They also assert their arguments about the treachery of policing political speech are bolstered by the apparent disagreement within the Times about whether the ad violated the paper’s policy against running personal attack ads.
“Here is a story that is just rich in irony,” said Bob Bauer, a leading Democratic election lawyer who often takes to his blog to rebut Times editorials calling for stricter regulations on political spending.
Bauer, who is known for pushing the envelope of campaign finance laws on behalf of his Democratic clients, including Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, called the paper’s editorial board “a huge player” in the debate over campaign finance laws.
“The editorial sting of The New York Times has been felt on the Hill in a way that has really made a difference to the debate,” he said.
In a blog post, he expressed hope that the MoveOn incident would “soften” the Times’ “sermonizing” in favor of “restrictions on speech that is not its own,” and he called on the paper to release its response to the conservative union’s complaint.
Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called on Congress to examine both the Times’ intent and the effectiveness and enforceability of the law.
“It strains credulity” that the discounted rate was a mistake, Davis wrote in a letter asking committee Chairman Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) to schedule hearings on the matter. “It is time for The New York Times to answer publicly, on the record and under oath for its conduct.”
Waxman’s spokeswoman did not respond to e-mail and telephone messages.
Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis declined to discuss details of the two ads, saying: “We do not disclose ad rates for any one advertiser or our discussions with them.”