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Revealed: Key Files on Big-Ticket Political Donations Vanish at Federal Election Commission

Top money and politics researchers discover that the FEC is quietly deleting information on fat-cat funders.

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Such organizations became more prominent as devices for major contributors to shield their identities thanks to a subtle change in reporting rules the FEC announced in the wake of a 2007 Supreme Court decision. That ruling went well beyond anything the Court ever suggested. The agency ordained that eligible 501(c)s needed to disclose donors’ identities only if the fat cats intended their contributions to support specific communications. Otherwise, the Commission maintained with a straight face, donors could be presumed simply to be supporting the general purposes of the organization, rather than contributing to specific ads. Their names therefore didn’t need to be disclosed at all.

It took a while for America’s 1 percent to absorb the meaning of this plain subversion of campaign finance disclosure provisions enshrined in the 2002 McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform. While they were learning, especially around election time, not to ask too many questions about what charities might do with their donations, some very prominent contributors and organizations filed with the FEC anyway.

It is the contributors’ records that have now suddenly disappeared. By contrast records of expenditures by the organizations they gave the money to are still in the files.   

There is more. The FEC identifies, or used to identify, contributions to 501(c) 4 organizations with a code that begins with the letter C followed by eight numbers, of which the first is always a 9. We find that all such files (save for one case that plainly never belonged there) have been deleted. The C9 array also included substantial numbers of individuals, who were lumped into this category for recording purposes. They are gone, too. Here again, the deletions do not appear to be corrections long after the event. Our check of the original donation records shows, for example, radio ads that were bought with the money. We have also noticed other independent expenditures have also disappeared, including more than $1 million spent by a financier promoting the abortive presidential candidacy of former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel that the FEC itself once listed on its own tabulation of independent expenditures. (That one, which was again widely discussed in some media, was gone long before January 2012 – possibly 2010 or even earlier.)

To describe the FEC’s actions as troubling scarcely does justice to what appears to have happened. We would like to find out that all this was somehow a terrible mistake that the agency will immediately rectify. Efforts to regulate political money in America are notoriously fraught with problems and they are hard enough without having to check every new FEC update for deletions. In addition, we still retain much confidence in the FEC staff. But data vanishing like ghosts is intolerable in a government agency charged with enforcing the law. The data were there for years; the contributions were real. They should never have been deleted. We will include them in a full file of contributions for the 2007-'08 cycle we will publish later.

To be clear, we are not aware that any pending regulatory reviews or litigation involving 501(c)s turn on specific facts of any of these contributions, even those involving millions of dollars. But the most obvious FEC data one could use to test claims about such money has suddenly vanished, with as far as we can tell no announcement or request for public comment. Pointing up the stealthy way the deed was done is the pattern of diffusion to other Web sites that rely on the FEC downloads for their own data presentations. For-profit sites on political money that update their files all the time show the deletion; public interest sites, with less money and resources, that update less often, still contain the older files!

No more than in the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the Commerce Department can we tolerate arbitrary data changes at the FEC. It has been perfectly obvious for a long time that the FEC needs to be run like a normal independent regulatory agency instead of operating directly under Congress’ thumb in a way no other agency is forced to. We need to know who authorized these deletions and whether any more have occurred. This requires a formal inquest and, in the future, serious safeguards, such as outside review committees with members capable of detecting them if democracy is not to be mocked and the law flouted. Even banana republics don’t stoop to this.