The Federal Election Commission sued the National Republican Senatorial Committee Friday, accusing it of illegally funneling nearly $2.7 million raised through solicitation letters from then-Vice President Bush to a dozen GOP campaigns in 1986.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, accuses the Senate campaign arm of the National Republican Committee of violating a contribution ceiling of $17,500 that party organizations can make to a single candidate.
All 12 of the GOP Senate candidates subsequently lost to Democrats in the November election.
The commission filed the suit in U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell's court in response to his ruling last January reversing the FEC's decision to dismiss a portion of a complaint by Common Cause against the Senate GOP committee.
Common Cause, a citizens lobbying group, filed the complaint with the FEC a week before the 1986 general election. It alleged that the Republican committee's "bundling" of contributions raised from Bush's letter and dispersing them to the 12 candidates circumvented the party spending limits.
In September 1986, the committee mailed 24 versions of Bush's solicitation letter -- each mentioning four states in which Senate campaigns were occurring but not the names of the GOP candidates.
The returning checks from donors were made out to the National Republican Senatorial Committee or an organization under its control, such as the "Inner Circle" or the "Republican Presidential Task Force," rather than the individual candidates' campaigns.
The committee, however, reported the contributions as going directly from donor to candidate.
"In some cases, individual donors had never even heard of the candidates to whom they supposedly had earmarked contributions," the FEC said in its lawsuit.
The FEC found in July 1988 that the $534,000 the GOP committee spent on the mass mailings without listing the money as a contribution to the candidates violated the law.
Five months later, the Republican committee agreed to pay a fine of $20,000. However, Common Cause opposed the settlement and filed suit to reverse it.
"Our position is that this matter was closed in 1988," said Bill Canfield, the Republican committee's legal counsel. "We paid a civil penalty, and we have a letter from the general counsel of the FEC saying the matter is closed."
Canfield described the FEC as being "caught between a rock and a hard place" because of Gesell's ruling last January.