The Democratic Party's infrastructure responded with noticeable alarm on Tuesday to a report that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce may be funding its political efforts with foreign donations.
The story, broken by the liberal blog Think Progress, contained all the elements of a compelling election story -- a pro-business lobby, operating largely in the dark, supporting conservative, free-trade candidates with money that may be culled from international corporations. Somewhat lost in the discussion (though quite evident in the Think Progress report) was the possibility that the Chamber's actions pushed the legal limits for acceptable electioneering.
On Tuesday afternoon, the progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org honed in on that element of the report, sending a letter to the Department of Justice's Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, urging him and the criminal division to launch an investigation into the matter.
"On behalf of the more than five million members of MoveOn.org Political Action across the nation, I am writing to request that the Department initiate an immediate criminal investigation into the use by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of contributions by foreign nationals to pay for advertising advocating the election or defeat of candidates for federal office. Information brought to light today by Think Progress, a project of the nonpartisan nonprofit organization Center for American Progress Action Fund, strongly implies that the Chamber has willfully violated federal campaign finance laws that outlaw the use of foreign cash in U.S. elections."
MoveOn's pitch to DoJ contains an important bit of nuance. In addition to alleging that foreign contributors are funding the Chamber illegally, the group argues that the business lobby is also illegally recruiting these donations.
"[T]he Chamber," writes Justin Ruben, MoveOn's Executive Director, "has dispatched former Ambassador Frank Lavin to speak before foreign Chamber affiliates about what is at stake for business in the 2010 midterm elections. If, as it appears, the Chamber is soliciting contributions from foreign corporations and foreign nationals while communicating to them the importance of the U.S. elections, the Chamber is at least indirectly soliciting contributions from foreign nationals for use in connection with U.S. elections.
"[N]ot only unlawful for a foreign national to make such a contribution, directly or indirectly, it is also unlawful for anyone 'to solicit, accept or receive' such a contribution 'from a foreign national.'"
The DoJ's willingness to launch investigations into these types of allegations seems decidedly limited. The Chamber has insisted that they have established a filter to ensure that no foreign funds end up paying for their election activities. "No foreign money -- from AmChams of otherwise -- is used to fund political activities," said spokesman J.P. Fielder.
The Obama Justice Department -- on a very basic political level -- is also likely wary of the appearance that it is meddling into the internal affairs of the Republican Party's biggest funder.
That said, MoveOn.org is supplementing the formal push with a grassroots one, emailing its five million member a petition "asking for an immediate investigation to examine relevant records and stop the flow of illegal funds into American elections."