POLITICS
11/03/2014 03:41 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2014

FEC Hunts Political Ghosts On Halloween

This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

The Federal Election Commission went ghost hunting on Halloween.

The agency on Friday blasted out hundreds of letters to campaign committees that failed to file campaign finance reports on time, including some tied to candidates who are dead, imprisoned, or who have long been out office.

Recipients of the Oct. 31-dated missives include the campaign committee of former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., which has missed every filing deadline since the Illinois Democrat pleaded guilty to a count of felony fraud in February 2013. He was later sentenced to 30 months in prison.

The campaign committee of the late Rep. Bill Janklow, a South Dakota Republican, received a letter, as did that of former Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-La.) — he of the bricks of bribery cash in his freezer — who a jury convicted of corruption in 2009.

The FEC, a small agency with a $65 million budget, is the primary watchdog in charge of overseeing elections — and has been dogged in recent years by ideological gridlock and internal inefficiencies. Campaign committees must regularly file reports with the FEC until they officially terminate, a process that takes some campaign committees years.

The agency sends out letters to active committees that miss a filing deadline. There’s no exception even if the candidate is, well, dead, or has a forwarding address of a federal prison.

An FEC press officer confirmed the agency sent out 372 such letters last Friday.

FEC Vice Chairwoman Ann Ravel explained that the FEC is required by law to post the names of committees that don’t file campaign finance disclosures on time. Therefore, the commission’s regulations require that the letters be sent to make sure no committee name is posted in error.

“With respect to issues of FEC priorities, obviously it would be so much better were we to be able to utilize our resources and also come to agreements on the commission itself to be able to enforce against the most serious violations that have an impact on public trust in the electoral system,” Ravel said, alluding to the commission’s frequent deadlocks on enforcement cases.

FEC Chairman Lee Goodman, a Republican, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The only way to save the FEC the trouble of going after such committees would be for Congress to give the agency permission to terminate campaign committees if they don’t respond over a certain period of time, says Brett Kappel, counsel with the political law practice at Arent Fox, though there would still be issues when campaign committees have unsettled debts.

“It’s a waste of scarce resources,” he said of many of the letters.

Debts can drag out for decades. Among the letter recipients: the campaign committee used by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s 2004 presidential bid, which still owes more than $900,000 a decade later — including $208,000 in unpaid civil penalties owed to the FEC itself.

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