The Obama campaign has filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against the American Leadership Project (ALP), a "527" group that Obama campaign chief counsel Bob Bauer described this morning as a "Swiftboat wannabe" and suggested was affiliated with the Clinton campaign. The American Leadership Project, which reportedly is led by the son of one of Hillary Clinton's Indiana state co-chairs, has been running what the Obama campaign described in a press release as "a misleading attack ad against Obama" on Indiana television.
In a press conference call this morning, Bauer explained the difference between what he called "normal political committees," which are subject to limits on the amount and sources of campaign contributions and must regularly file reports with the Federal Election Commission, and so-called "527s," groups organized under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code and which are not subject to most election laws. According to Bauer, the FEC announced new rules in 2006 designed to reduce the impact of groups like the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, which fatally damaged John Kerry's presidential hopes with widespread negative advertising impugning his military service. The new rules require any groups that are set up expressly to support or oppose a particular candidate, like the American Leadership Project, to follow the limits and reporting requirements of "normal political committees," Bauer said, calling the American Leadership Project's actions "flatly illegal" under federal law.
Bauer went on to explain that one of the campaign's main purposes in filing the FEC complaint was to send a message that 527 groups were not free to ignore the law as the campaigns head into the general election. He also took a swipe at the Federal Elections Commission, which has not been as proactive as many would like, suggesting that the complaint against the ALP would be a test of whether the FEC intends to enforce its rules. Asked by a reporter whether the FEC has the resources to investigate the complaint, Bauer said it did -- and that it had the ability to impose "very, very stiff penalties for knowing and willful violations" of federal law, citing "fines of millions of dollars" imposed by the FEC against other 527 groups in 2006. Bauer also pointed out that the FEC also has authority to refer complaints to the Department of Justice for investigation.
The question of whether the FEC will pursue its investigation aggressively is an important one, given how little time is left before the last primary elections. Bauer believes the ALP is deliberately flaunting the law, saying, "this organization has made the decision that it will run this risk and try to run out the clock ... to give it the advantage of spending without having to shut down before the last penny is spent." However, he suggested that even beginning an aggressive investigation would help mitigate that, suggesting that "[t]he FEC has a choice to make here ... of doing what they said they would do... immediately contacting the donors and the principals and bringing them in," which he said would itself be a significant deterrent.
Indiana State Representative Matt Pierce, an Obama supporter, also participated in the conference call. He talked about seeing an anti-Obama ad on local television yesterday that caught his attention because it ended by asking people to directly contact the Obama campaign to complain. He said that such ads were "poisoning" the election process; describing the high levels of public participation and excitement among Democrats this year, he added, "I think we lose that if we let these 527s run amok."