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New group hopes to divert campaign contributions to charities

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Eric M. Zolt has come up with a unique approach to getting money out of politics: Instead of contributing to their favorite candidates, donors would send their money to charities instead.

Zolt is co-founder of a company called Repledge, which is seeking approval from the Federal Election Commission to run an ambitious experiment aimed at reducing the amount of cash sloshing around in the U.S. political system.

Here’s how it would work: Donors from each party would pledge a certain amount during fund drives at the firm’s Web site, www.repledge.com. Once the time expired, Repledge would divvy up equal amounts from each side to be given to charities chosen by the donors. Any remainder would be given to political candidates.

Thus, if supporters of President Obama pledged $60,000 and backers of Mitt Romney promised $50,000, $100,000 would be distributed to charity and the remaining $10,000 would go to the Obama campaign.

The idea is to provide a way for donors disgusted with money in politics to keep their cash out of the system, while ensuring that they aren’t hurting their favored candidates in the process.

“It’s Match.com for political opposites who would still like to support their candidate but are disappointed with the tremendous amount of funds going into campaign finances,” said Zolt, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Repledge is the latest in a series of experiments aimed at stanching the flow of money into political races, particularly in the wake of court rulings that have made it easier for corporations and others to spend unlimited funds on elections. Last year, for example, Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz called on fellow business executives to withhold campaign contributions as a protest of gridlock in Washington.

But before it can give its idea a whirl, Repledge must gain approval from the FEC. Commission lawyers have drafted two opinions for the panel’s consideration: One would allow Repledge to go forward, but another would block the effort on the grounds that, because Repledge is a private corporation, the approach would “violate the prohibition on a corporation facilitating contributions to candidates or political committees.”

The dueling advisories signal that some members of the panel have reservations about the proposal. The draft opinion opposing the idea says the net effect of Repledge’s efforts will be to raise money for political candidates — a tactic not allowed under FEC guidelines.

“Although Repledge’s business model contemplates diverting funds away from political committees and to charitable organizations, in essence it serves as an elaborate fundraising device,” the proposed FEC advisory states. “While this fundraising model may be innovative, it is not the type of service the Commission has previously permitted.”

Zolt said such concerns are misplaced and that actual donations would be processed by third-party vendors. He and his three partners have asked the FEC to delay any decision until he can respond to the objections in detail.

Even if Repledge gets FEC approval, Zolt concedes that the effort will probably not have a major effect on spending in the 2012 presidential race, which some experts predict could approach $2 billion.

“If we can get 1 percent of that $2 billion, I would consider that a success,” Zolt said. “It’s a good way to make a statement that the campaign finance system is broken.”

Money woes for Feinstein

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was hoping to replace millions of dollars that her campaign lost in a massive embezzlement scheme. But her chances don’t look good.

Bookkeeper Kinde Durkee pleaded guilty last month to defrauding numerous California politicians of at least $7 million in one of the nation’s largest political embezzlement cases. Feinstein was the hardest hit, losing an estimated $4.5 million.

Feinstein had asked the FEC for permission to collect new contributions from the original donors whose money was stolen, but the panel has signaled it will probably reject the request in its meeting Thursday.

FEC lawyers say in a draft opinion that Feinstein cannot solicit replacement contributions from donors without running afoul of federal caps on individual donations.

That only one opinion is under consideration suggests that the commission will probably agree on the issue.

Feinstein’s attorney in the case, Marc E. Elias of Perkins Coie, declined to comment.

Feinstein, one of the Senate’s wealthiest members, has already loaned her campaign $5 million to make up for the shortfall.

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