WASHINGTON - A federal judge has ruled that the Federal Election Commission repeatedly misinterpreted the 2002 campaign-finance-reform legislation when it issued rules implementing the law, creating "an immense loophole" that could "foster corruption."
The decision striking down more than a dozen FEC rules is unlikely to have an effect on this year's election, campaign-finance experts said yesterday.
The Saturday ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly represented yet another blow to the beleaguered agency, which has come under fire from key members of Congress and reformers who say it is ineffective and should be abolished.
"The bottom line is, the FEC's interpretation of our law had no basis in the reality of the statute," said U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican who filed the lawsuit in October 2002 with his co-sponsor of the reform bill, Rep. Marty Meehan, Democrat of Massachusetts.
Shays and Meehan had argued that the FEC rules weakened the campaign-finance legislation as approved by Congress, creating loopholes that enabled "the subversion, erosion and circumvention of campaign-finance laws."
The judge, who oversaw the Microsoft antitrust settlement, told the FEC to rewrite 15 regulations. Among them were rules concerning:
Coordination between third-party groups and federal candidates.
Appearances by members of Congress at state party fund-raising events.
How state parties may spend unregulated contributions on voter registration drives and other party-building activities.
The Internet and exempting it from regulation as a form of public communication.
Permission for charitable organizations to spend corporate or union money on television advertising featuring federal candidates within 60 days of an election.
The 2002 campaign-finance law banned unlimited corporate, union and individual contributions to political parties. Such types of donations are typically known as soft money.
It fell to the FEC to devise rules for how the law should be enforced. Sens. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, co-sponsors of the legislation, filed a brief with the court supporting the Shays-Meehan lawsuit.
The FEC asked the judge to dismiss the Shays-Meehan lawsuit, arguing that the lawmakers had no standing to sue. However, the judge disagreed in a 157-page decision, saying that some of the agency's rules created the potential for "gross abuse."