GOP alleges Kerry is breaking finance law

Campaign strongly denies illegal coordination with pro-Democrat groups

April 01, 2004|By Lisa Getter | Lisa Getter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - In a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission, the Bush campaign and the Republican Party charge that Sen. John F. Kerry is benefiting from "the largest illegal infusion of soft money from wealthy individuals, unions, corporations and other special interests" since Watergate.

"They're making a mockery of what the rules are," President Bush's campaign chairman, Marc Racicot, said yesterday in unveiling the complaint.

Republicans alleged that Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is part of an "unprecedented illegal conspiracy" to coordinate advertising with well-funded liberal groups in violation of campaign finance laws - a claim that the Kerry campaign and the groups and their donors adamantly deny.

At issue is the role of several pro-Democratic groups whose stated goal is raising $300 million to help oust Bush in November. Known as 527s because of the tax code that governs them, groups such as the Media Fund and MoveOn.org have been spending millions of dollars on anti-Bush television ads in the same key states targeted by Kerry.

In an unusual move, the Bush campaign's national counsel, Ben Ginsberg, will ask the FEC to immediately dismiss the complaint without hearing its merits so that the Republicans can then seek relief in federal court.

"No penalty, civil or criminal, after the fact could possibly remedy the irreparable harm caused by allowing this illegal activity to continue unabated," the GOP complaint states.

The Kerry campaign called the complaint frivolous.

"John Kerry and his campaign have nothing to do with these ads or the groups that run them," said Michael Meehan, a senior campaign adviser.

FEC commissioners say they are banned from speaking about enforcement actions, so it is unclear what the six-member bipartisan panel will do. The FEC usually takes at least several months to decide complaints, which the Republicans contend is too long to have any meaningful impact in this year's presidential election.

The FEC is already in the midst of a lengthy process to impose new rules that could affect how the 527s raise and spend their money.

The complaint names six 527s - the Media Fund, America Coming Together, America Votes, Voices for Working Families, MoveOn.org and the Partnership for America's Families - as well as some of their wealthy donors.

Among the donors are philanthropist George Soros, who has contributed $5 million; Hollywood producer Steven Bing, who has given $2 million; and Cleveland-based insurance billionaire Peter Lewis, who has donated $3 million.

Campaign finance reform laws banned such large donations, known as soft money, to political parties. But the 527s are not governed by the same restrictions. The groups contend they are operating legally.

The Bush campaign has a $108 million cash advantage over Kerry in collecting so-called hard money, according to the latest financial disclosures. But Republicans worry that the influx of advertising money from the 527s could close that gap in a hurry.

From March 3-27, the Media Fund spent an estimated $7.3 million and MoveOn.org spent $3 million on television advertisements attacking Bush, according to TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, an independent monitor based in Virginia. Its figures are derived from analysis of ads on broadcast television in 100 major markets and on several national cable outlets.

During that same period in March, the Kerry campaign spent an estimated $3 million, according to the ad monitor. That brought the anti-Bush spending to rough parity with the Bush campaign, which spent an estimated $16.9 million.

It is difficult to prove illegal coordination. Political ad buys are public record, and it's common practice for campaigns and interest groups to watch where others buy airtime and react accordingly.

"They're going to need more than just showing there is a parallelism between what the Media Fund does and what the Kerry campaign does," for example, said Larry Noble, head of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics and former FEC general counsel. "They're going to have to show some discussion, some meeting, at least some sharing of information between the Kerry campaign and these organizations."

Los Angeles Times staff writer Nick Anderson and the Associated Press contributed to this article. The Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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