Sep 21, 2010

OH: La Botz Charges Ohio Newspaper Organization with Illegal Contributions to Democratic and Republican Campaigns

An article and press release from the Dan La Botz campaign for US Senate in Ohio:
Dan La Botz, Ohio’s Socialist candidate for United States Senate, today charged the Ohio Newspaper Organization (ONO) and its corporate members with making illegal corporate contributions to Rob Portman’s and Lee Fisher’s Senate campaigns.
ONO is a for-profit, business enterprise created by the eight largest newspapers in Ohio. These eight newspapers, the Toledo Blade, the (Canton) Repository, the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, the Columbus Dispatch, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Dayton Daily News, the Akron Beacon Journal, and the (Youngstown) Vindicator, are all profit-seeking corporations. Rob Portman is the Republican nominee for United States Senate in Ohio. Lee Fisher is the Democratic candidate.

The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) prohibits corporations from making contributions or expenditures “in connection with” any federal election. 2 U.S.C. § 441b(a). “Contributions” and “expenditures” include “any direct or indirect payment ... or gift ... to any candidate, campaign committee, or political party or organization.” Id. § 441b(b)(2).

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has construed this broad prohibition to include sponsoring debates. In short, because of the potential for abuse and the risk that corporate money may skew electoral outcomes, it is illegal for corporations to sponsor, stage, or fund debates between candidates for federal office.

Corporate news organizations that follow strict FEC guidelines have been granted a limited exemption from this general prohibition. FEC regulations specifically provide that in order to qualify under this exemption, a corporate news organization must use “pre-established objective criteria to determine which candidates may participate in the debate ….” 11 C.F.R. § 110.13(c) (emphasis added). FEC regulations, moreover, clearly state that “staging organizations(s) shall not use nomination by a particular political party as the sole objective criterion to determine whether to include a candidate in a debate.” Id. (Emphasis added). In passing these regulations, the FEC stated that “[s]taging organizations must be able to show that their objective criteria were used to pick the participants, and that the criteria were not designed to result in the selection of certain pre-chosen participants.” See Buchanan v. Federal Election Commission, 112 F. Supp.2d 58, 74 (D.D.C. 2000) (quoting FEC statement) (emphasis added).

Courts interpreting these FEC regulations have noted that “these statements by the regulation's drafters strongly suggest that the objectivity requirement precludes debate sponsors from selecting a level of support so high that only the Democratic and Republican nominees could reasonably achieve it.” Buchanan v. Federal Election Commission, 112 F. Supp.2d at 74 (emphasis added).
In his filing with the FEC, Mr. La Botz charges that ONO and its corporate members have organized three televised debates (using television stations owned by ONO’s members) between Portman and Fisher in violation of the FECA and the FEC’s regulations. No candidate other than the Republican and Democratic candidates were ever contacted about these debates. Planning began in June and culminated with a September 1, 2010 announcement. At no time during this period was La Botz contacted, notwithstanding his repeated inquiries. ONO never established pre-existing objective criteria; it never announced any criteria at all. It simply selected its pre-chosen candidates—Fisher and Portman. Far from establishing and announcing objective criteria, ONO and its corporate members simply selected their pre-chosen participants—a clear violation of the FECA.

Mr. La Botz stated: “Clandestine deals between corporate-America and its preferred candidates cannot be tolerated in free elections. If corporations, including news organizations, are to participate in American politics, they must—absolutely must—comply with the law. They must be neutral. They must be fair. They cannot simply shovel money, coverage, television exposure, and political favors to the two major-party candidates. Nor can candidates legally bargain for these gratuities.”
Mr. La Botz continued: “If they really believe in a democratic process and fair elections, the news organizations and candidates named in this complaint should take action immediately to include all other parties and candidates in the debates they are organizing. The FEC, as the guarantor of fair elections, should also act at once to ensure that I and other parties and candidates are included in these and other such debates. I think it is important for these and for future elections to hold these candidates and their corporate sponsors accountable for their wrongdoing.”

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