Conservative Lobbyist Faces Suit Over Secret Fundraising

WASHINGTON (CN) – A political watchdog brought a federal complaint Monday against a right-wing group that it says has failed to register as a political committee despite having spent millions over the years promoting candidates.

Filed with a federal judge in Washington, the complaint from Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility takes aim at the group American Action Network, which was founded in 2009 by and lobbyist Norman Bertram Coleman and Fred Malek, a former assistant to Presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush.

CREW says it was incumbent on the network to register with the Federal Election Commission as a political committee soon thereafter, since as early as 2010 it “devoted a majority of its activity to electing or defeating candidates in federal elections.”

By failing to do so, CREW says the network has kept it and the public in the dark about the identity of its “contributors and the recipients of many of its disbursements,” violating the Federal Election Campaign Act.

Represented by in-house counsel, CREW notes that it has unmasked the network as a political committee with two judgments from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

“The most recent judgment declared that a group’s spending on electioneering communications — broadcast ads that clearly identify a federal candidate, air shortly before an election, and are targeted to that candidate’s electorate — presumptively count towards finding that a group’s major purpose was to nominate or elect federal candidates, a judicially created qualification for political committee treatment under the FECA,” the complaint states. “Because the FEC had not applied this presumption to AAN’s ads, the court declared the dismissal of CREW’s complaint against AAN was contrary to law.”

CREW notes that the 30 days in which the FEC was ordered to conform with the court’s judgment expired on April 19. “The court made clear a failure to conform would result in the FECA’s conferring on CREW the right to bring ‘a civil action to remedy the violation involved in the original complaint,’” the complaint states.

A spokeswoman for the network meanwhile denied CREW’s allegations.

“This relates to activity from 2010 and is the third in a series of frivolous lawsuits that have previously resulted in multiple dismissals from the FEC,” she said in an email. “AAN will continue to assert its rights in whichever court or agency necessary.”

CREW notes that a political committee is defined by statute as “any committee, club, association, or other group of persons which receives contributions aggregating in excess of $1,000 during a calendar year or which makes expenditures aggregating in excess of $1,000 during a calendar year.”

Though the network has described its primary goal as promoting policy, CREW says its activities reveal that the group’s “true mission was and is to elect and defeat candidates for federal office.”

Just in its first year, the network accepted $2.75 million in contributions, and CREW says campaign activities ate up “well more than half — likely closer to 71 percent — of its spending” from 2009 to 2010.

Between 2010 and 2011, meanwhile, the complaint says the network spent $18,075,612 on television advertisements and other expenditures, including ads against Democratic candidates Bill Kitting, Bryan Lentz and Dan Seals.

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