The Federal Election Commission, created in 1975 to bring integrity to campaign financing, got off to a rocky start.Its regulations, when formulated, were often unintelligible. It was understaffed with inexperienced people. It wasn't even certain who it was trying to protect, politicians or the public.
Today, as the 1980 election campaigns near, little has changed.
Item: Though it now regulates a $400 million industry called campaign finance, the FEC does not have a single certified public accountant on its auditing staff.
Item: Elmo Allen, the lead auditor on the recently completed audit of President Carter's primary campaign, quit last month, complaining that the agency has badly flubbed what little of the audit it has completed and that it is simply incompetent to examine adequately campaign finances. "I just believe that those people don't know what the hell they're doing," Allen said in an interview.
Item: An April staff memo to the commissioners specified 27 steps needed to prepare for the 1980 campaigns and dates by which these steps were to be taken. Twenty of the 27 dates had long since passed. At the same time, more than $3 million has already been raised by 1980 presidential candidates.
Item: A planned revision of the rules governing campaign finance disclosure has never occurred. There was so little guidance to candidates in the 1976 election that the FEC felt it could not hold the Carter campaign, for one, accountable for thousands of dollars in inadequately documented expenditures.
Item: Staff turnover is now about 25 percent annually, much higher than most government agencies. Morale, concedes FEC Chairman Joan D. Aikens, is low among many employes "in every division." Complaints of "cronyism" in hiring and promotion, which have contributed to low morale, resulted last September in the formation of an employes union at the FEC.
Criticism of the agency is starting to spread. "There are severe administrative weaknesses over there," says Bob Moss, chief counsel for the House Administration Committee, which oversees the FEC.
"Our concern goes beyond the normal resentment" expected of members of Congress toward the agency set up to watch over their campaigns, Moss added. "There have just been too many blunders. If a secret vote were taken in Congress today, the FEC would be disbanded."
"We realize we are going to be criticized," said the FEC's Aikens. "But a lot of it is unjust and unfair. It has been very difficult to build a staff. There is very little experience in how to administer the law." She said she is confident that the agency can handle the 1980 campaigns.
Commission staff director Orlando Potter was not so confident when asked the same question. "I couldn't say I'm unqualifiedly comfortable" about the situation, he said.
Beyond the specific problems, there are questions about whether the FEC, which is supposed to regulate the behavior of politicians, isn't in fact regulated by them and for them. Some of the questions arise out of the basic structure of the agency as created by Congress.
The commissioners are appointed according to party affiliation. There are three Republicans, Aikens, Max Friedersdorf and Vernon W. Thompson, and three Democrats, Robert O. Tiernan, Thomas E. Harris and John W. McGary.
The commissioners commonly intervene in the formulation of advisory opinions by staff lawyers, according to general counsel William Oldaker, and "say how they want them to come out in a certain way."
Somewhat less than half the FEC hires, according to a rough estimate by commission director Potter, have prior "connections" with politicians, generally members of Congress.
One example is Kenneth A. Gross, an assistant general counsel hired two years ago to advise auditors on the legal aspects of their work, including the Carter campaign audit. He was plucked fro the Atlanta law firm of Robert Lipshutz, White House counsel and treasurer of the Carter campaign. "I would think," says Oldtaker, "that Lipshutz had something to do" with the hiring.
Commission audits are conducted under unusual secrecy, though this is not required by law, under the philosphy that "anything you might do might affect an election," according to Oldaker.
During the 2 1/2 years it took to complete the audit of the Carter primary campaign, the FEC clamped a lid of secrecy on all information pertaining to the audit, refusing to explain the delay or any other aspect of the examination. It cited the law creating the FEC, claiming that it prohibited the agency from discussing campaign audits in public.
Last weeks, however, after months of protests by news organizations, the commission changed its policy and decided that it may discuss audits in open meetings. The general counsel advised the commission that there never was a legal requirement that it be done in secret.
Finally, as a matter of policy, the agency created in the wake of Watergate makes a point of not going out and looking for wrongdoing.
Oldaker disbanded a 15-member investigative staff, saying there "wasn't enough work for them to do," and arguing that it was preferable to rely on the filing of complaints. Meanwhile, a sample audit by the FEC of the 1978 congressional races found that 40 percent of the campaigns accepted illegal contributions.
Another factor contributing to criticism of the FEC is the fact that the agency still hasn't completed audits of four 1976 presidential campaigns, including Carter's.
in March, the FEC finished thCarter's primary campaign, affirmed a 2 1/2-year effort effort. But the long delays and complaints about the quality of the audit have subjected the agency to new scrutiny.
The audit found only minor and technical violations of disclosure provisions in the Carter primary campaign. As a result, repayments totaling about $8,000 were required.
There is no evidence that there were anything other than minor infractions by the campaign. In an interview, Allen, the lead auditor for the Carter audit who resigned last month, suggested that the commission simply was not equipped to find anything else.
"I just believe that these people [the auditors] don't know what the hell they are doing," Allen said. "It was a standard joke-that people didn't know what they were doing."
Allen said that some of those doing the Carter audit "never had had any audit training. We had some very inexperienced people on it."
"In additon, " he said, "the FEC is very understaffed. We didn't have half the people we needed for the job."
As a resulr the job."
As a result, he said, there were periods of up to a month's duration in which only one or two persons were working on the audit and other times when no one was.
Staff director Potter said in an interview that "audit staff strength has been a problem. We've had a lapse there we've been hard put to make up." Experienced CPAs, he said, are unwilling to work at the governmenths pay scale. But he defended the capabilities of the 30 or so auditors now employed by the FEC.
"We don't have anything to apologize for. I think they are very able people.
Potter also defended the hiring two years ago of Lipshutz's law associate, Gross, as assistant general counsel in charge of audits. He and Oldaker said that while Cross did not formally disqualify himself from decisions relating to the Carter audit, he did not make "decisions" pertaining to it.
Oldaker said Gross' only role in the Carter audit was to advise him of precedents from prior audits when questions came up.
Oldaker said of Gross, "I can't remember how he got here. I would think that Lipshutz probably had something to do with it."
He said he definitely remembered Lipshutz's name being used by Gross as one of his references. Gross, through a commision spokesman, declined to be interviewed.
"I assure you, " Potter said, Gross' "lineage was made perfectly clear to all members of the commission" at the time he was hired.
According to some agency employes and former employes, the FEC has crippled itself with its own hiring policies.
"It seemed as though some people were here not by virtue of their performance but according to how well connected they were," said Philip Kellett, a paralegal specialist in the FEC and president of the independent union organized there last September. "A common complaint is that there is cronyism" in hiring and promotion, he said.
All of this was denied by general counsel Oldaker.
The FEC is now more than just a regulatopy agency. In the 1976 elections it dispensed more than $50 million in public funds to help finance presidential campaigns. Now Congress is considering extending public financing to congressional races, which would further add to the FEC workload.
There is concern among supporters of public financing that the agency's current weakness could undermine support for public financing and also concern about whether the agency could handle the new load should the legislation pass.
The House Administration Committee, according to Moss, is planning extensive oversight hearings on the FEC in June in hopes of getting to the bottom of the agency's problems before it is swamped by the events of 1980. CAPTION: Picture, JOAN D. AIKENS . . . concedes FEC morale problem