Norm Coleman's Possibly Million Dollar Mistake

10/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

For Sen. Norm Coleman, 1.1 seconds could cost his campaign thousands if not a million dollars.

The Minnesota Republican was caught violating campaign communications law in one of his recent commercials, failing to include the requisite amount of time for his own likeness and message.

The mistake, a seemingly involuntary oversight uncovered by the Minnesota blog MN Publius, could mean the Coleman ad no longer qualifies run on TV at the lowest ad rate. Should the stations choose to charge his campaign (and to some extent it is their discretion) the Senator could be billed an estimated $20,000 more. If, as argued by the Al Franken campaign, Coleman should now have to pay a higher rate for the remainder of the campaign, one Democratic media analyst who has worked in Minnesota said the cost could extend upwards of a million dollars.

All of which was entirely avoidable. As pointed out by the legal counsel to Franken, a candidate for office must include "no less than four seconds" of its ad to a "clearly identifiable photographic or similar image of the candidate." The spot Coleman launched this week (one of three on the air ) included only 2.9 seconds of his likeness.

The penalty for such an infraction is that a campaign no longer qualifies for the lowest unit rate. Meaning that, in Minnesota, the cost of Coleman's ads could rise 30 to 40 percent. While the Senator is now paying an estimated $210 a point, the price could go up to $295 -- what the Republican and Democratic campaign committees pay. If he is penalized only retroactively for the transgression (as in, just for this ad), the tab could be in the tens-of-thousands of dollars range (there is no word how much money Coleman put behind this individual spot). If Coleman should be penalized for the remainder of the campaign and he spends another $4 million on television ads, the cost could be raised by more than $1 million.

"That's a pretty costly error," said Phil Singer, a Democratic communications consultant, "the kind that should have been caught by his campaign."

In fact, Coleman's oversight, officials say, may have violated two separate laws. The FCC Communications Act of 1934 is the one cited by the Franken campaign. In addition, however, the Federal Election Commission prohibits campaigns from taking contributions from corporations. If a candidate accepted a lower unit rate for a commercial that should have been charged at a greater price, it could constitute an in-kind contribution.

"The FEC could fine him for the ads already aired. To the extent that the campaign has received the lowest unit charge, that could be considered an illegal contribution," said Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center. "If the station nevertheless already gave the lowest unit charge to the candidate, or wanted to, does that constitute a violation of federal finance laws? Does that constitute a corporate contribution to the candidate? My recollection is the FEC punted on this [when it came up in the past]."

Indeed, Coleman seems unlikely to be punished for his FEC violation for the mere fact that the commission has, in the past, been divided over similar infractions. The FCC is another matter. According to a letter sent by Franken's counsel to station managers, the Senator should not be given discounted rates on any ads he runs in the future (regardless of whether he has fixed the violation).

"If a candidate does not comply with this requirement at any time during the sixty days preceding the general election," the letter reads, before quoting the law itself, "that candidate may not receive the lowest unit charge 'for such broadcast or any other broadcast... that occur on or after the date of such broadcast.'"

Campaign finance lawyers see this as a strict interpretation of the law. According to Ryan, Coleman would likely only receive a monetary punishment for the ad that he aired (not future ones). He did, however, add that there existed wiggle room for the Senator to argue that he shouldn't be punished at all.

"If you look at this communications act language it says, 'a candidate should not be entitled to receive.' That doesn't preclude a station from giving a candidate the lowest unit charge even if that candidate is not entitled to it."

In past incidents, the decision of what type of ad charges should be imposed on the campaign in violation has been left to the television stations themselves.