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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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The Federal Election Commission has long been the go-to source for tracking political money. So when it starts cleansing politically hot contributions from its files, it matters. Big time.

We have discovered that sometime after January of this year, the FEC deleted a whole set of contributions totaling millions of dollars made during the 2007-2008 election cycle. The most important of these files concern what is now called “dark money” – funds donated to ostensible charities or public interest groups rather parties, candidates or conventional political action committees (PACs). These non-profit groups – which Washington insiders often refer to generically as 501(c)s, after the section of the federal tax code regulating them – use the money to pay for allegedly educational “independent” ads that run outside conventional campaign channels. Such funding has now developed into a gigantic channel for evading disclosure of the donors’ identities and is acutely controversial.

In 2008, however, a substantial number of contributions to such 501(c)s made it into the FEC database. For the agency quietly to remove them almost four years later with no public comment is scandalous. It flouts the agency’s legal mandate to track political money and mocks the whole spirit of what the FEC was set up to do. No less seriously, as legal challenges and public criticism of similar contributions in the 2012 election cycle rise to fever pitch, the FEC’s action wipes out one of the few sources of real evidence about how dark money works. Obviously, the unheralded purge also raises unsettling questions about what else might be going on with the database that scholars and journalists of every persuasion have always relied upon. 

Why the FEC Was Created

Federal regulatory agencies are often the offspring of epic scandals. The Federal Election Commission is no exception. It was created in the aftermath of Watergate to do for political money what the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) did for securities markets in the New Deal: End an anything-goes saturnalia of corruption through a mix of tough new regulations and “sunlight” – in this case, open, transparent publication of who is trying to buy whom with campaign contributions.

The FEC was supposed to inform the public and curb abuse in our democracy. But like the SEC in the post-Reagan era, the FEC’s reach soon exceeded its grasp. Virtually from the beginning, dark forces of law and politics combined to render the agency almost impotent as a regulator. Today a generation of legal loopholes, court decisions and bipartisan foot-dragging has wrecked spending limits, destroyed the promise of public funding and spawned a new Gilded Age of money in politics.

As the actual situation of money and politics slid from bad to worse, the FEC adjusted by trumpeted its public reporting functions. Given the vast holes in coverage, calling its data reports and archives the “gold standard” of reporting about money in politics would be a stretch. Yet for a generation, we and virtually everyone who tracks political money have benefited hugely from the agency’s labyrinthine data collections as well as the patience and kindness of its staff in explaining them. While you knew FEC data was unlikely to be the last word, you could be confident that whatever the agency did report was as true as it could make it. That the FEC would ever delete true reports of politically relevant money was literally unthinkable.

Something now appears to have changed at the FEC. We are dismayed to find that at some point between January and July 8, 2012, the FEC deleted a whole set of contributions totaling millions of dollars made during the 2007-2008 election cycle.