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Epic failures at FEC allow Sen. Rick Scott to exploit campaign laws

Jul 26, 2021

By Editorial Board 

July 26, 2021

(South Florida Sun Sentinel) – There are people who consider the Federal Election Commission to be worthless. They are wrong. It’s even worse than that.

The FEC is a catastrophic failure in its most critical mission of enforcing federal campaign finance laws. The commission’s dysfunction encourages blatant violations and allows politicians to pretend that the public interest doesn’t need a better defense against the malignant influence of billions of campaign dollars.

Time and again, FEC commissioners deadlock 3-3 along partisan lines over whether to pursue cases or impose penalties. A tie vote means “no,” frustrating and wasting the work of the FEC’s capable career service staff.

A recent dysfunction deep-sixed a plausible case against Florida Sen. Rick Scott and a political committee he once chaired known as New Republican PAC.

The complaint by the reformist group End Citizens United alleged that Scott, as Florida’s term-limited governor, took over a dormant PAC and used it as a fund-raising machine for his 2018 U.S. Senate campaign before he announced his candidacy against Democrat Bill Nelson. Thereafter, that PAC, although publicly dedicated to supporting then-President Donald Trump and his policies, spent nearly all its $34 million for Scott’s benefit, and nothing discernible for Trump or for any other Senate race in 2018.

Scott clearly manipulated it to raise significant money outside of the $85 million that went directly to his campaign, which he won by only 10,033 votes out of 8.19 million cast. Scott is now chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, directing fund-raising for all GOP Senate candidates in 2022.

The FEC’s general counsel found probable cause to pursue the case against Scott, and both Democrats and the independent who usually joins them voted to proceed. But it was all for naught as all three Republican commissioners voted no.

Democrats Shana Broussard and Ellen Weintraub signed a seven-page dissent finding “clear” evidence that Scott used New Republican to raise more than $2.3 million in the 11 months before he declared his open-secret candidacy against Nelson.

Most of the money came to the PAC in enormous chunks, some as great as $2.5 million, that would be illegal if given directly to a candidate. But PACs that claim to be independent of the candidate can raise and spend without limits. Much of that money comes from other committees nebulously classified as “social welfare” organizations not required to disclose contributions — a practice both major parties exploit.

On a single day, Sheldon Adelson, the late Las Vegas casino magnate, and his wife Miriam gave $5 million to the New Republican PAC.

Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates, dark-money groups have spent more than $1 billion to influence elections, mostly in TV and internet attack ads and direct mail, according to

It’s the FEC’s duty to make certain that such spending is truly independent of the candidates it benefits. But its defaults are an old story. After the 1988 U.S. Senate election in Florida, the FEC refused to pursue apparent links between Republican Connie Mack and a PAC of foreign car dealers that spent heavily to attack Democrat Kenneth “Buddy” MacKay in a race Mack narrowly won.

New Republican ultimately spent $29.5 million attacking Nelson, all to Scott’s benefit, while reporting only $201.17 in direct aid to Scott.

On other recent bad days at the FEC, it levied an $187,500 fine against the National Enquirer’s parent company for violating the election law with a 2016 hush money payment of $150,000 to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with Trump years before he was elected. But there weren’t enough votes to pursue a case against Trump himself.

Earlier, it let Trump off the hook over a $130,000 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels, paid by Cohen’s personal counsel, Michael Cohen. Cohen, who went to prison for his role, said Trump was responsible for both unreported payments.

Lately, the FEC’s Democratic commissioners have been turning dysfunction to their advantage by denying the votes to formally dismiss a case or defend the commission when organizations sue over its refusal to pursue their complaints. That’s intended to prevent courts from ruling that the complaining groups lack legal standing to sue the FEC over procedural issues such as the paralyzing tie votes.

The law supposedly allows any citizen to sue to enforce the campaign finance laws, but some judges have ruled that it doesn’t apply to “procedural” FEC decisions. Congress must fix that.

“I’m using the small amount of leverage that I have,” Weintraub told the New York Times. “I’m just trying to get the law enforced.”

That’s no substitute for actually enforcing the law, but it does make a point.

Congress could end the partisan stalemates simply by reducing the number of commissioners from six to five — two from each party, and an independent. That passed the House and is under consideration by Senate Democrats. Another reform would have all five commissioners nominated by an independent advisory panel rather than picked solely by party leaders.

But many if not most Congressional Republicans are opposed, and the reforms are in a larger election bill that stands no chance against a filibuster.

Barring a minor miracle, the nation seems fated to a government that can’t enforce its own election laws against the corrupting influence of excessive money. Almost everything that most Americans find wrong about Washington owes to that.

The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, Editorial Writer Steve Bousquet and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, email at [email protected].