President Bush's campaign filed a lawsuit yesterday that accuses advocacy groups that support Democratic nominee John F. Kerry of "massive" and "ongoing" violations of election laws and seeks an emergency court order to stop their activities.
Bush's campaign complained in the suit that at least five Democratic-leaning fundraising organizations, including MoveOn.org, Media Fund and America Coming Together, are violating the law by coordinating their efforts with Kerry's campaign and by raising unlimited funds from labor union, corporate and individual donors while expressly working to defeat Bush.
The Bush campaign asked a judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to immediately intervene and force the Federal Election Commission to take action.
The complaint charges that the groups -- known as 527 organizations for the section of the tax code that governs them -- have "conspired to circumvent the law" and are "working in complicity with other long established special interest groups and wealthy individuals to illegally raise and spend soft money while illegally coordinating their efforts . . . all for the express purpose of defeating President Bush."
The organizations have attracted notice recently because of ads run last month by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a 527 organization that has challenged Kerry's Vietnam War record. Bush has declined a request by Kerry and fellow veteran Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to denounce the group's message, saying he is opposed to all 527 groups.
The independent groups grew in importance after the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill became a law, which barred labor unions, corporations and wealthy individuals from giving unlimited contributions to political parties. As long as they do not coordinate with candidates, the groups can legally accept unlimited contributions and spend as much as they want to advocate the election or defeat of a candidate. Much of the money is spent on television ads.
Republicans have moved aggressively in recent months to establish 527 organizations to compete with Democratic groups, which formed earlier and have spent $63 million.
Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot said yesterday in a conference call that Congress passed McCain-Feingold "to create a level playing field and set up specific requirements" limiting how much money political groups working for the election of specific candidates could raise from donors. "These shadowy organizations have been very successful at evading those requirements," he said.
Leaders of the organizations yesterday dismissed the Bush campaign's charges. They argued the president vocally defended the 527s that supported him in the 2000 election, and now was attacking only 527s opposed to his policies.
"This is little more than political posturing, a transparent deathbed conversion by the Bush administration on 527s," said James Jordan, a former Kerry campaign manager and now the leader of ACT. "We are totally operating within the spirit and the letter of all campaign regulations and laws."
Experts in campaign finance law predicted yesterday that the Bush campaign would have little chance of forcing a change in the activities of 527 groups within the 62 days remaining before the Nov. 2 election. Advocates for political financing curbs agreed with the Bush complaint that the 527 groups should be forced to comply with fundraising restrictions, but contended that because it focused on Democratic groups, the Bush complaint seemed disingenuous.
Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign reform advocacy group, said he agreed "with the Bush campaign that the 527s are violating the law, but it's happening on both sides, Democrat and Republican."
Michael Meehan, a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign, said the complaint ignored more serious acts by a Republican 527 that he said had ties to White House political strategist Karl Rove.
"Given the coordination with the White House, Karl Rove and the Bush Swift Boat vets, we hope the Bush campaign included themselves in their frivolous lawsuit," Meehan said.
Bush defended 527s in an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation" when supporters from Texas started such a group during his 2000 campaign for the White House and attacked then-presidential candidate John McCain during the GOP primaries.
"That's part of the American process," Bush said. "There have been ads, independent expenditures . . . but that's what freedom of speech is all about."
U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson, appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton in 1994, is to handle the case, which stems from a complaint the Bush campaign filed with the FEC in March. The FEC was about to propose rules for regulating 527s but decided not to in the midst of the campaign.
If Robertson issues an injunction, it would require the FEC to take action on Bush's complaints within 30 days. The FEC could then move to penalize the 527s, dismiss the Bush complaint or conduct additional investigation. The Bush campaign argued it has a chance to make the last 30 days of the campaign, which "are crucial to voter turnout, voter perceptions," more fair.
Staff writers Thomas B. Edsall and Jeffrey Birnbaum contributed to this report.