American Future Fund wants FEC to overturn robocall bans

Interesting story from the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Politics Insider blog:

The American Future Fund Political Action has asked the Federal Election Commission for an advisory opinion about whether federal law preempts laws like that in Minnesota.

In that state, a live operator must initiate the recorded call with the consent of the person receiving the call.

The political action committee, which raises and contributes money for political campaigns, is based in Virginia, but its advocacy arm, American Future Fund, is run out of Des Moines.

Des Moines lawyer Nick Ryan, chairman of American Future Fund’s board, said such restrictions interfere with federal campaign finance laws, which cover the activities of federal candidates, national party organizations and political action committees.

Ryan argued that the issue his group is raising is about fairness. For example, it is more expensive to conduct a telephone campaign that requires hiring staff, an obstacle to candidates with small warchests, Ryan said.

For background on the American Future Fund, read this Daily Kos diary by Mrs Panstreppon and this article by Jason Hancock for the Iowa Independent.

This FEC request suggests that the group plans to continue to be involved in upcoming elections in Minnesota, perhaps including the 2010 governor’s race or Congressional elections. Iowa doesn’t have any restrictions on political robocalls. The American Future Fund has run television ads in Minnesota this fall and ran ads supporting Republican Senator Norm Coleman last year. In fact, Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party filed an FEC complaint against the group:

“The American Future Fund is a shadowy nonprofit organization,” the complaint said. “It purports to be exempt from tax under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. But its notion of ‘promoting the social welfare’ is to send valentines to electorally troubled Republican Senate candidates. The Commission should take immediate steps to enforce the law and expose this group’s secret financing to light of day.”

Here in Iowa, the American Future Fund seems to be backing Terry Branstad for governor. Tim Albrecht was that group’s communications director before taking a job with the Branstad campaign. Nicole Schlinger, former president of the American Future Fund, is now handling fundraising for the Branstad campaign.

A member of the Des Moines business community tells me that Ryan has been making fundraising calls for Branstad’s campaign. I don’t know if he’s doing that on his own time or as part of his work for the American Future Fund. Ryan has worked for Bruce Rastetter, one of the Iowa business leaders deeply involved in recruiting Branstad to run for governor again.

UPDATE: The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office will submit comments to the FEC defending that state’s law.

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Iowa Christian Alliance faces FEC complaint

The Iowa Christian Alliance, headed by Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler, is facing a Federal Election Commission complaint over contributions allegedly run through West Hill United Methodist Church of Burlington. Morris Hurd is pastor of that church and also serves as board president and treasurer of the Iowa Christian Alliance.

The Iowa Christian Alliance is a 501(c)4 non-profit organization, meaning that it can engage in political advocacy on issues, but donations to the group are not tax-deductible. Many houses of worship, including West Hill United Methodist Church, are 501(c)3 non-profits, to which donations are tax-deductible. However, 501(c)3 groups may not engage in political advocacy.

The AP’s Mike Glover summarized the FEC complaint filed last week by Stacey Cargill of West Des Moines:

The complaint charges that Iowa Christian Alliance officials solicited money from potential donors, instructing them to send the money to Hurd’s church, making it tax-deductible. Donations were made with the understanding they would be forwarded to the alliance, the complaint said. […]

In a phone interview, Des Moines lawyer and GOP activist Ted Sporer described a similar process to The Associated Press. He said he wrote two checks to the church.

“The facts are, I was told that if I were to write a check to this church, I would get credit for being a sponsor at Christian Alliance events,” said Sporer. “I was advised that if I wrote the check to the church I would be credited.”

Hurd did not dispute that churches offered financial support to Iowa Christian Alliance.

“There are churches and ministries in Iowa that have supported the ICA and have occasionally contributed to our nonpartisan voter education effort, including voter registration and nonpartisan voter guides,” said Hurd. “They are fully within their right to do so under both the Internal Revenue code and the First Amendment.”

Scheffler told Glover that Cargill “is not dealing with a full deck of cards […] The woman is a troublemaker. She attacks everybody and anybody.”

Cargill filed a previous FEC complaint against the Iowa Christian Alliance, alleging the group allowed a woman to use its office space and database to support presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The FEC rejected that charge in February of this year.

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That was fast

This morning, Politico reported that John McCain was unable to say exactly how many houses he and his wife own. Click the link to listen to the audio.

Within hours, Barack Obama’s campaign released this ad to run on cable television:

Also the same day, Obama and a bunch of Democratic surrogates pounded on this gaffe, linking it to McCain’s recent statement that he considers people making less than $5 million annually to be “middle class.” (In reality, an annual family income of $350,000 puts an American in the top 1 percent.)

Meanwhile, the McCain campaign tried to change the subject to the fact that he was a POW in Vietnam, the fact that Obama’s house is pretty big, and Obama’s relationship with Chicago businessman Tony Rezko.

A new conservative 501(c)4 organization has produced a hit piece on Obama to run on television in Ohio and Michigan. Ed Failor Jr., former McCain aide in Iowa and executive vice president of Iowans for Tax Relief, is a leading figure in this new group.

The good news for McCain today was that the Federal Election Commission unanimously decided to let McCain cheat by getting out of accepting public financing for the primaries. McCain used the fact that he’d qualified for public financing to secure loans to his campaign in 2007. He also used his public financing certificate to qualify for the Ohio ballot without collecting signatures. Then, once he won the nomination, he weaseled out of his promise. Adam B has more background and analysis of this FEC ruling.

But other than that, I have to agree with JedReport: It was a really bad day to be John McCain.

UPDATE: Seriously, how many houses does the McCain family own? Politico says eight properties, but ProgressiveAccountability.org says at least ten.

SECOND UPDATE: Karl Rove comes up with creative but not convincing spin: making fun of McCain’s housing gaffe is an attack on Cindy McCain, because the homes were bought with her money. So apparently Obama is now attacking McCain’s wife!

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On blogger ethics and commenter ethics

On Tuesday, the Des Moines Register reported that the Federal Elections Commission unanimously found “no reason to believe” that Gordon Fischer broke the law in the way his blog Iowa True Blue supported Barack Obama for president.

A supporter of Hillary Clinton had filed the FEC complaint, saying

the blog “ceased being just another political blog” and became a “direct arm” of the Obama campaign after Fischer endorsed Obama. He said the blog included information that was similar to that being disseminated by the Obama campaign.

Tofte said that he also saw a tab labeled “donate” at the Web site and asked Fischer via the Web site why a donation would not have to be disclosed as a donation to the Obama campaign. When he returned to the site later Tofte said he found the “donate” tab no longer existed, and he charged that Fischer changed the Web site and attempted to cover up donations.

In its analysis, the FEC staff said Fischer denied any coordination existed between him and the Obama campaign and said that anything he wrote on the blog was an exercise of his right to free speech. Fischer also denied soliciting donations on the blog.

The staff agreed. “There is no information to suggest that the Obama Committee is coordinating with the Fischer Web site as to its contents,” the FEC analysis said, and added there was no information to suggest the donation tab ever existed.

It’s the right ruling. Political blogging itself is not considered a campaign contribution by the FEC. Many bloggers, including myself, receive press releases and other occasional communications from political campaigns.

It might not be very interesting to read a blog that consists primarily of press releases and talking points, but that certainly falls under the free speech rights of any blogger, in my opinion.

I do not recall whether I ever saw a “donate” button on Fischer’s blog. It’s not possible to evaluate how much his writing changed after he endorsed Obama in September, because in January he reported on his blog that all of his past posts had been deleted. I know that some of his posts during the spring made a lot of Clinton supporters angry, but it’s no FEC violation to be a strong advocate for your candidate.

I have and will continue to support various Democratic candidates on this blog. However, no campaign ever has or will tell me what to write, what to write about or when to write it. If I feel a press release is newsworthy, I write it up. If not, I don’t bother. I don’t submit any material to anyone prior to publication either.

I want to say a few words about blog commenters, because last Sunday, Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu got me thinking about the subject with a long piece called Stop spewing online venom. She talked with a few of the “trolls” who enjoy offending other people at the Register’s website and placed most of the blame for this phenomenon on the Register’s tolerance for anonymity. The newspaper won’t print anonymous guest columns or letters to the editor, but it does allow anonymous comments on its website, and most of the inflammatory material is posted by commenters who don’t use their real names.

The Register’s home-page editor, Yvonne Beasley, spends much of her day taking down posts with “moron,” “retard” and “white trash” in them. “I’ve taken down horrible, perverted things about Shawn Johnson,” she said.

She figures about a dozen people on the Register’s Web site fit the description of trollers, including missdorothy. And Beasley says her communications with counterparts at other papers indicate most handle them just like the Register does.

The problem for the Register is that with 2,000 or so comments posted every day, it’s impossible for one editor to delete all that deserve to be deleted.

Al Tompkins, a professor of ethics and online journalism at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, has a problem with newspapers allowing anonymous posts because newspapers are supposed to filter truth and accuracy from fiction and not publish things that are untrue or injurious to others. When names are not used, he said, “people will take advantage of others, bullying, and saying and doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do.”

Nor does he see it as a free-speech issue to allow that.

“If you can’t afford to do it right,” he says, “don’t do it.”

[Register editor Carolyn] Washburn says a feature allows readers to hide online comments. She also encourages use of the “report abuse” tool to steer conversations in a more constructive direction.

Basu thinks the Register should  

gradually start requiring people to provide their names, and begin matching those to e-mail addresses. It’s a safe bet many would stop lobbing missiles in stealth and start being more civil, and the conversations would improve.

Not surprisingly, since I choose to blog as “desmoinesdem,” I disagree with Basu regarding anonymous comments. There are many valid reasons for someone to prefer to use a screen name online.  I would never require Bleeding Heartland users to reveal their real names.

However, I have asked that each person who writes here choose one username for Bleeding Heartland and stick to that. In other words, no “sock puppets” created to lend support for your own position.

While no one has to reveal any personal details here, I ask people not to make false statements about themselves either. You’re free to never mention your gender, age or location at Bleeding Heartland, but if you say you are a thirty-something mom of two in Windsor Heights, you should be a thirty-something mom of two in Windsor Heights.

Bleeding Heartland has fortunately not attracted many trolls. Users can rate comments, and comments can be hidden if they receive too many “zero” ratings.

I am reposting some guidelines for rating other people’s comments at Bleeding Heartland:

You don’t have to rate comments (my personal style is to be sparing in handing out ratings), but if you do, you can give five possible ratings.

“4” is for excellent. That means the comment has valuable insight, original information or analysis, and makes a strong contribution to dialogue at Bleeding Heartland.

“3” is for good. You might use this if you largely agree with someone’s comment, but not with every point he or she makes.

“2” is for marginal. You might use this if you strongly disagree with the content of someone’s comment. Also, a 2 rating could be a “shot across the bow” to warn someone that the line of argument in the comment didn’t do much to advance dialogue here, or comes close to crossing a line.

“1” is for unproductive. If you not only strongly disagree with a comment, but feel that it detracts from the atmosphere here (for instance, because it is disrespectful or contains ad hominem attacks), you might give it a 1.

“0” is for troll. If more than one user gives a comment a zero, it will be hidden so that some Bleeding Heartland readers cannot see it.

Never use a zero rating to express disagreement with the argument someone is making. That is ratings abuse, and if you do it repeatedly, Bleeding Heartland administrators will either take away your ability to rate comments or potentially ban you from posting here.

A zero rating should be reserved for extreme circumstances, when the comment deserves to be hidden. For instance, if someone is impersonating someone else by choosing a different real person’s name as a screen name (for instance, if I signed up as “Leonard Boswell” and posted ridiculous comments pretending to come from him).

Comments that use racist or otherwise bigoted language also would merit a zero.

Trying to expose the real names of Bleeding Heartland users who choose to write under screen names will not be tolerated either.

Slanderous, ad hominem attacks could get a zero rating too, but be careful not to accuse other posters of slander just because you disagree with their point of view or interpretation of events.

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ActBlue/FEC Deadline is 11 AM (CST) Today

Today at 11 AM Central Time, any and all comments to the Federal Election Commission on their pending decision regarding presidential primary matching funds on contributions received through ActBlue are due.

Multiple organizations are vocally opposing this ban, as it effectively disregards ActBlue’s nature as a grassroots fundraising system and largely violates the meaning of matching funds through public funding.  As the netroots’ own Adam Bonin wrote in his letter to the FEC on behalf of DailyKos and BlogPAC:

Obviously, while ActBlue is a “political committee” in the strictest sense of the term, in reality it does not act as such.  ActBlue is a conduit for individual contributor preferences, to track and aggregate small-dollar contributors.  It asserts no control over the recipients of its funds; the site’s only criteria is that the recipient be a Democrat. It fulfills FECA’s anticorruption goals by reporting contributors’ names, addresses, employers, and occupations to campaign, which in turn provide that information to the Commission as is legally required.

This is a clear a case as any of reformers accomplishing via technology what law alone cannot do: leveling the playing field between moneyed interests and small-dollar contributors by allowing anyone to become a “bundler”, and to allow such contributors to have visual, real-time confirmation of their impact upon the process.  In the same way that the public financing system itself is designed to encourage and magnify the impact of small-dollar contributions, ActBlue facilitates those contributions occurring in the first place.

If you’re at all interested in supporting the Edwards campaign’s position–which isn’t a tacit endorsement, but an affirmation of your belief in grassroots fundraising–please make sure to submit your comments.  You can see more by reading desmoinesdem’s earlier post here.

You can do that in a variety of ways:

– Visit JohnEdwards.com and send a comment through our simple form.

– Write an E-mail to Mary Dove, the FEC Commission Secretary at mdove@fec.gov

– Fax your comments to the Secretary at (202) 208-3333 and to FEC’s Office of General Counsel at (202) 219-3923

Sign the letter from Public Campaign

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