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Panel Deluged on Advocacy Groups’ Election Ads

Times Staff Writer

Peek inside the in-box of the Federal Election Commission and you’ll find thousands of e-mails from people who want an immediate crackdown on the liberal groups that are spending millions of dollars on advertising in an attempt to defeat President Bush in November.

Richard Perrin of Rochester, N.Y., wrote that such groups “are engaging in a blatant end run around the campaign finance laws, and their actions should not be tolerated.”

But thousands of e-mails also have come from union members, nonprofit representatives and people like Dannie Wolf of Lawton, Okla., who fear that the FEC is about to erode their 1st Amendment right to speak freely.

Inundated by more than 140,000 e-mails and 11,000 faxes -- the most in its 29-year history -- the FEC will begin hearings today on what, if anything, it should do to regulate the so-called 527 groups and other nonprofit advocacy organizations that spend money to influence elections.

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More than 30 people are scheduled to speak on the issue today and Thursday.

The six-member bipartisan commission is to vote on the matter May 13, although it is not clear whether it has the four votes necessary to change the rules.

“The commission will have the votes to do something. Exactly what I’m not sure,” said Chairman Bradley A. Smith, a Republican. He isn’t convinced anything should be changed.

One option is to do nothing and keep the rules the way they are, Smith said, “and that has a great deal of support in the comments we’ve received.”

The FEC hearings will address whether some 527s should be subject to rules that govern political committees, thereby prohibiting them from spending so-called soft money on federal elections.

Such a move could in effect shut down liberal groups now spending millions of dollars against Bush and in support of Democratic challenger John F. Kerry. To continue, the groups would need to raise new “hard money” contributions under tighter restrictions and in smaller chunks before they could spend it on advertising or other political activities.

Campaign finance reform laws bar unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and unions to political parties.

But the 527s, which are named for the tax code that governs them, contend that those laws do not apply to them. They have collected contributions in unregulated and large sums above the $2,000 legal limit.

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Vice Chairman Ellen L. Weintraub, a Democrat, has said she will vote against proposed restrictions because she believes they were put together too quickly and without enough thought.

“I don’t want to change the basic definition of who gets regulated and who doesn’t in the midst of an election year,” she said.

But Commissioner Michael E. Toner, former chief counsel of the Republican National Committee, favors FEC action.

“The extraordinary volume of comments reflects the importance of the issues the commission is facing and the need for the agency to comprehensively resolve these issues,” he said.

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Many e-mails sent to the FEC were the result of organized campaigns by interest groups with a stake in the outcome of the hearings.

The Bush campaign takes credit for 66,000 e-mails that urged the FEC “to move forward quickly with its rulemaking.”

The League of Women Voters, the Bull Moose Republicans and the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance watchdog group, also said they had organized e-mail campaigns supporting stricter rules for independent groups.

Among those that have encouraged e-mails and letters opposing rule changes are unions, nonprofit groups and 527s.

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The proposed rules could change the definition of an expenditure to include any communication that “promotes, supports, attacks or opposes” a candidate for federal office.

They could also affect nonprofit groups, which often take out ads at election time on issues ranging from the environment to abortion. Under the tax code, they are not defined as 527s but as nonprofit 501Cs.

Their inclusion in the broad proposal of rules sparked an outpouring from across the country.

Still, most observers believe that if the commission does anything, it will concentrate on a handful of 527s that were set up by Democratic insiders to influence the 2004 presidential race. The Media Fund and MoveOn.org have been spending millions of dollars on anti-Bush television ads in key battleground states.

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Several of the groups have announced plans to collect and use as much as $300 million from wealthy individuals and unions this year. Philanthropist George Soros, for instance, has contributed $6.4 million to two of the groups, America Coming Together and the MoveOn.org Voter Fund.

“Soros believes his contributions are both within the letter and the spirit of the law,” said Michael Vachon, a senior aide to Soros.

Separate from the FEC’s potential rulemaking on how the groups spend their money, the Republican National Committee and the Bush campaign filed a complaint last month with the commission, alleging that liberal 527s were collecting large contributions illegally and collaborating with the Kerry campaign on advertising strategy.

Although Bush has had a $108-million cash advantage over Kerry, Republicans fear that the influx of money from the 527s could close the gap significantly.

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Among those who will speak at the hearings this week are law professors, representatives from unions, businesses, nonprofits, 527s and election watchdog groups.

Officials from a group that represents homeless people with AIDS will argue that the rules would “threaten the advocacy work of organizations such as ours.”

And officials from the nonpartisan Drug Policy Alliance, which seeks to reform drug policy, argue that the rules “represent one of the worst assaults on the freedoms of speech and association ever proposed in the United States.”

They say that under the rules, they would be unable to communicate with their members on the voting records of lawmakers shortly before an election.

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Lawyers for the major 527s will argue that only members of Congress, not the FEC, have the authority to change the rules governing them.

Lawyers for the Chamber of Commerce of the United States will argue that the rules would have a chilling effect on voter registration activities.

“The commission’s proposed rulemaking represents an effort to rewrite, hurriedly and yet radically, the rules by which various groups and organizations have been operating for years,” lawyers for America Coming Together told the FEC.

Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center and the Center for Responsive Politics contend that America Coming Together is “improperly” channeling soft money into the 2004 election because it is using 98% of its soft money on election activity, “a fictional and absurdly high level.”

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