The death panels at the Federal Election Commission (FEC) work slowly. News that the FEC had killed off a complaint against former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman’s re-election campaign finally reached the public yesterday — nine months after the complaint was filed and six weeks after the commission put it out of its misery.
“My only complaint is it’s a little late,” Denise Cardinal, executive director of Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM), told the Minnesota Independent. “It’s good they looked into it, but it’s not very timely if you think of everything that’s happened since then.”
The complaint’s passing was a foregone conclusion by the time it came. But how a matter that originated in October 2008 came to its conclusion almost 11 months later is a story in itself.
The world was different last December when Cardinal sent the FEC a letter requesting a prompt investigation into possible payments from Coleman’s campaign to lawyers representing him in civil lawsuits in Texas and Delaware that dated back to the final days before the election.
Back then, Coleman was still serving as Minnesota’s senior senator, as the State Canvassing Board shuffled through thousands of the nearly 2 million ballots cast in the November 2008 election between incumbent Coleman and DFL challenger Al Franken.
In mid-December, reports of an FBI investigation into Coleman’s affairs led to a staffer’s statement that the senator would seek advice from the FEC about whether he could pay personal lawyers from campaign coffers.
That in turn prompted ABM to ask the FEC whether Coleman had in fact already been paying his legal bills with campaign cash, in possible violation of federal election law.
For months during the (separate) court battle over the election’s outcome, there was no word that Coleman had in fact followed through on seeking an advisory opinion from the FEC, and it appeared ABM’s complaint was the only thing the FEC had pending in the matter.
But it’s the FEC’s practice that inquiries from candidates like Coleman take priority over third-party complaints like ABM’s, and with springtime came news that the FEC and Coleman’s campaign had in fact been haggling over documents related to his own advisory-opinion request.
In June the FEC made public two different draft advisory opinions for commissioners to choose between that to a greater or lesser extent gave Coleman the green light. A week later when the commission decided on a 4-2 vote to advise Coleman he was largely within his rights to cut checks to civil-court attorneys from his campaign committee’s (though not his recount committee’s) bank account.
That ruling made Cardinal’s complaint mostly moot. But officially it remained a Matter Under Review at the FEC.
Then in July the FEC sent ABM a letter (pdf) stating the inevitable: The complaint was dead. There was no evidence in examples ABM had cited way back in December that money had moved from Coleman for Senate to his personal attorneys — and anyway such transfers were now within the law under the June opinion.
Yesterday brought the official publicizing of the decision via the news media. The FEC issues press releases about such decisions only sporadically, in groups. Wednesday happened to be the day that the dismissal of ABM’s case was included in announcement, along with five other commission actions from the latter half of the summer.
With Cardinal’s complaint kaput and the Texas and Delaware lawsuits withdrawn, the FBI’s is the only inquiry into the matter that could still have life left in it, and they aren’t talking.
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