The fight is centered on a push by the Republican commissioners to bar FEC staff members from sharing information with federal prosecutors unless the panel — currently dominated by GOP members — gives its approval.
The commission’s lone Democrat and many campaign-finance experts say the move could politicize such decisions and hamper the ability of the FEC and the Justice Department to prosecute election violations.
The dispute comes in the wake of the most expensive election in U.S. history, which followed court rulings that freed corporations to engage directly in political campaigns and gave rise to super PACs financed by unlimited donations.
The panel has been deadlocked for three years over how to update its rules to cope with the new campaign funding environment.
Advocates of campaign-finance limits view the latest fight as part of a broader Republican attempt to weaken the election agency and the regulatory system it oversees.
“You have three commissioners who are aggressively trying to stop the enforcement of the law,” said Larry Noble, president of Americans for Campaign Reform, who served for 13 years as FEC general counsel. “Now it appears they are trying to give themselves the ability to stop the FEC from assisting another agency. I cannot see a good motive for this.”
Leading the push to stop the staff from cooperating with prosecutors is Commissioner Donald F. McGahn, an outspoken conservative who is slated to leave the panel once a replacement is approved by the Senate.
In a wide-ranging interview, McGahn said the proposed policy is aimed at reining in the general counsel’s office, which he accused of exceeding its authority by sharing records with the Justice Department and then withholding information about interagency cooperation from commissioners. The most recent head of the office, Anthony Herman, ended his tenure Friday after submitting his resignation last month.
“This isn’t a power grab,” McGahn said. “It’s a question of who’s responsible and who’s accountable.”
McGahn invoked the recent scandal at the Internal Revenue Service, whose employees singled out groups with certain words in their names for extra scrutiny.
“You just can’t have an agency where the staff is sort of left to their own devices to come up with lists and do their own thing, because it creates such an opportunity for people to accuse the place of playing political games,” McGahn said.
Herman said McGahn’s portrayal of the Office of General Counsel is “not true.” He said he had continued a long-standing practice of responding to Justice Department requests for material related to criminal investigations. Until recently, no commissioners objected, Herman said.