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washingtonpost.com > Politics

FEC Fines Ashcroft's Senate Bid For Breach

By Thomas B. Edsall and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 17, 2003; Page A01

The Federal Election Commission has determined that Attorney General John D. Ashcroft's unsuccessful 2000 Senate reelection campaign violated federal election laws by accepting $110,000 in illegal contributions from a committee Ashcroft had established to explore running for president.

In documents released yesterday by the FEC, Garrett M. Lott, treasurer for the two Ashcroft committees, the Spirit of America PAC and Ashcroft 2000, agreed to pay a $37,000 fines for at least four violations of federal campaign law. Lott agreed "not to contest" the charges.

"Spirit of America PAC and Ashcroft 2000, respectively, violated the [law] by making and receiving this excessive contribution. Additionally, Spirit of America PAC and Ashcroft 2000, respectively, violated the [law] by failing to disclose the making or receipt of the excessive contribution," the FEC declared in a news release.

Under the law, the Spirit of America PAC was allowed to give the Ashcroft 2000 committee only $5,000 for the primary and $5,000 for the general election, which it did. The commission found that the list rental income transferred to the Ashcroft 2000 committee therefore amounted to a violation of these limits.

The FEC vote was 5 to 1, and the one dissenter sought harsher penalties and tougher findings.

The three Republican members of the commission joined two of the Democrats in voting for the penalties. But two Republicans members, David M. Mason and Michael E. Toner, played down the significance of the findings:

"This matter was a garden variety complaint regarding a series of mailing list transactions between two political committees, which was blown far out of proportion, apparently due to the involvement of the sitting attorney general, who is a favored target of political attacks by opponents of the current administration," they said in a statement.

The one dissenter, Ellen L. Weintraub, the third Democrat on the commission, said the agreement "ignores the heart of the complaint, the wholesale transfer of a mailing list, developed at a cost of $1.7 million" to Ashcroft 2000. "The [$37,000] penalty . . . is so low that I do not believe it adequately reflects the severity of the conduct at issue."

A spokesman for the Department of Justice declined to comment. Lott, contacted by phone at his St. Louis law offices, also declined to comment.

After serving one term in the Senate from Missouri, Ashcroft, a former governor and a favorite of conservatives, considered running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. But with then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination, Ashcroft decided to run for reelection instead. But his Democratic opponent, Mel Carnahan who had been killed in a plane crash during the campaign, received more votes. His wife, Jean Carnahan, was then appointed to take his place, and Ashcroft joined the Bush administration.

An 11-page "conciliation agreement" signed by Lott and the FEC legal staff outlines the complex financial arrangements between Ashcroft's presidential exploratory committee and his Senate reelection committee.

While Ashcroft was considering a presidential bid, he formed the Spirit of America PAC, which invested at least $1.7 million in 3.9 million "prospecting" letters to build a valuable list of donors, according to the agreement. Starting in May 1998, the Spirit PAC began to rent out its contributor list, collecting fees from other groups and candidates seeking lists of conservative donors.

On Jan. 5, 1999, Ashcroft announced that he was abandoning his presidential bid. Throughout 1999 and early 2000, the Spirit PAC continued to rent out its donor list. On Dec. 10, 1999, Lott wrote to the list management firm, Omega List Co., that is it "the intention of Mr. Ashcroft that all list rental revenue . . . be attributed to Ashcroft 2000."

On Dec. 30, 1999, Omega issued a check for $66,662.22 to Ashcroft 2000, which described the money on campaign finance reports as "mail receipts." On March 31, 2000, another list firm, PMI, paid Ashcroft 2000 $46,299.83 for "Assignment of Accounts Receivable."

The conciliation agreement declares: "The list rental income in the form of the re-issued checks, and the proceeds from the sale of accounts receivable by Ashcroft 2000, which totaled over $110,000, constituted an excessive contribution from the PAC to Ashcroft 2000 in violation" of two sections of campaign law.

In a formal statement accompanying the conciliation agreement, Weintraub cited a number of letters and other documents signed by Ashcroft to demonstrate his active participation in what the commission found to be illegal campaign contributions.

On a 3 to 3 split vote, the FEC rejected the recommendation of its general counsel, Lawrence H. Norton, to find that the violations involved illegal contributions of $254,000. The three Democrats backed the counsel and the three Republicans opposed him.

The issue of the Ashcroft campaign's use of the Spirit for America's donor list was first raised by The Washington Post in February 2001, and the next month the National Voting Rights Institute, Common Cause, the Alliance for Democracy and two Missouri voters filed a complaint with the FEC. In March, 2002, the National Voting Rights Institute representing the two voters and the Alliance for Democracy filed suit charging that the FEC had failed to investigate the apparent illegal contribution.

Ashcroft's Senate campaign committee initially tried to get the lawsuit dropped. In October 2002, the plaintiffs asked Ashcroft to release records of the FEC investigation. The attorney general refused and another suit was filed, this one seeking a court order to have the records released or have the FEC make a finding.

The National Voting Rights Institute yesterday charged that the $37,000 fine was inadequate, amounting to a "tax" on illegal activities.

"The Federal Election Commission's action in this case is a farce," said Bonnie Tenneriello, an attorney with the Institute. "John Ashcroft's political committees, and possibly John Ashcroft himself, engaged in serious violations of federal campaign finance law during the 2000 election. The FEC's fine is merely a slap on the wrist."

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