Crossroads GPS tries to squeak past disclosure window

Washington Bureau

A hard-hitting new TV spot by the conservative advocacy group Crossroads GPS is scheduled to air within 30 days before the Democratic National Convention, a buy that should force it to disclose its donors. But the organization is counting on confusing guidance from the Federal Election Commissionto get it off the hook.

The new commercial -- which opens with a clip of CBS News anchor Scott Pelley saying, “This is the worst economic recovery America has ever had” -- began running Tuesday in nine battleground states.

Part of Crossroads GPS’ most recent $25-million buy, the ad is set to run through Aug. 6, the group announced on its website.

That means the commercial will be on the air less than 30 days before a party convention -- a period of time in which groups that air “electioneering communications” must disclose all their contributors for the cycle, the result of a federal court ruling this spring.

Electioneering communications are television spots that refer to federal candidates but stop short of advocating for their election or defeat and that air within 30 days before a primary (or before the first day of a national nominating convention) and 60 days before the general election.

According to the FEC, the electioneering communications window before the Democratic National Convention begins Aug. 4. However, the commission has offered confusing guidance on the topic: Last week, its website identified the start the period as Aug. 7, which the FEC then said was a mistake, noting the correct date was Aug. 4.

“The commission regrets the error,” the FEC said in a statement posted on its website Friday. “The commission will exercise its prosecutorial discretion and will not take enforcement action with respect to communications disbursements made in reasonable reliance on the erroneous information on the website in connection with EC reporting.”

Officials with Crossroads GPS appear confident that because of the confusion, the group will not be forced to reveal its contributors.

“Crossroads has no plans to air ads that will trigger reporting in the [electioneering communications] window,” spokesman Jonathan Collegio said in a statement.

The stakes for the group are high: It is one of the biggest political players of the 2012 election, having already run more than $83 million worth of campaign-related TV spots, according to a tally by the Sunlight Foundation. But as a tax-exempt organization, it is not required to reveal who is financing its efforts, as super PACs must.

However, new disclosure rules kicked in this spring, when a federal judge decided in case brought by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) against the FEC that the commission had circumvented Congress’ intent to bring transparency to campaign spending by only requiring groups to disclose donations earmarked for election-related ads.

Conservatives have balked at the ruling and argue that forcing political donors to be identified would chill the exercise of free speech. The decision is under appeal, but it is not set to be heard until September.

In an interview, Van Hollen said the stance taken by Crossroads GPS underscored the lengths the group would go to to hide its donors.

“This shows the utter contempt that Crossroads GPS has for the law and their fear of telling voters who is bankrolling their campaigns,” he said.

If the FEC does not enforce the electioneering disclosure rules, Van Hollen said, he is considering taking the matter to court.

“I think they would have a really difficult time claiming that because of a technical FEC error, they get to violate the law,” he said. “I think this is going to be more of a fight than they think.”

“They know what the window is,” Van Hollen added. “These guys aren’t young pups. They know what the court decision is.”

In a statement emailed in response, Collegio said: “Congressman Van Hollen is either ignorant of the FEC rules or disingenuous with the facts, though as a Washington politician he could be both.”