Probe of DNC Donor Travel Ordered
FEC Must Pursue Claim of Sale of Trade Mission Seats, Judge Says
By Bill Miller
U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin, in ordering the agency to pursue what it said could be "serious violations of law," criticized the FEC's decision not to pursue the case on its own as "inexplicable."
Although Sporkin's order, issued Monday, does not reach any conclusions about whether the allegations are true, it could rekindle the controversy surrounding whether seats were sold on foreign trade missions in return for campaign contributions to the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection effort. The matter surfaced during the tenure of the late commerce secretary, Ronald H. Brown, who repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group led by attorney Larry Klayman, filed an administrative complaint in August 1996 asking the FEC to investigate. The FEC did not respond until December 1997, when it declined to act.
In a letter to Klayman, FEC lawyer F. Andrew Turley wrote: "In light of the information on the record, the relative significance of the case, and the amount of time that has elapsed, the Commission determined to close its file on this matter." Turley noted that Klayman could file an appeal in court.
Klayman, who has filed more than a dozen lawsuits accusing the Clinton administration of a wide assortment of misdeeds, did just that, suing the FEC and claiming that its inaction was indefensible and politically motivated.
FEC officials declined comment on Sporkin's ruling yesterday and whether they would appeal. But they defended themselves last month at a contentious hearing in Sporkin's courtroom in which they maintained that Klayman's group had no standing to file suit.
"Judicial Watch simply has no connection to anything done by the Clinton administration or the Democratic National Committee," David Kolker, an FEC attorney, told the judge. "While Judicial Watch may be sincerely upset about the allegations it has raised concerning the Department of Commerce, what it has come to the court with here is a generalized grievance about how the commission has gone about en forcing the Federal Election Campaign Act."
Kolker said Klayman's complaint did not specify exactly how the alleged conduct would violate the law and added, "If the campaign contributions themselves were lawful, there is nothing for the commission to look at."
"Well, is bribery lawful?" Sporkin shot back.
"It's not lawful," Kolker replied. "But it's not under the commission's jurisdiction."
In his opinion, Sporkin sided with Klayman, saying, "A seat on the U.S. Department of Commerce trade mission obtained in exchange for a campaign contribution could be classified as an 'offset' to a contribution, a 'refund,' or a direct 'disbursement' exceeding $200 in value."
So, Sporkin added, "The DNC and the Clinton/Gore 1996 reelection committee may have had an obligation to report these alleged quids pro quo to the FEC." He said it appeared to him that the FEC focused on technical flaws in Klayman's complaint instead of its charges.
"The FEC had before it serious allegations backed up with documentation and sworn testimony," Sporkin wrote in his nine-page opinion. "At the very least, the FEC should have given the complaint careful consideration. . . . This is not a case where the allegations were trivial or unfounded."
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