Chamber of Commerce Story Sparks Wide-Ranging Reaction, Calls For Investigations

Since ThinkProgress issued a report two days ago about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s foreign funding, there has been a considerable reaction. The New York Times published an editorial yesterday, saying that the report “raises fresh questions about whether they [the Chamber] are violating both the letter and spirit of the campaign finance laws.” Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) has called on the Federal Election Commission to investigate whether the Chamber is in fact using foreign funds to pay for political attacks in the United States. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) called on his Republican opponent to denounce a Chamber ad that attacks Feingold.

Last night on Rachel Maddow’s show, former FEC chairman Scott Thomas — who was appointed by Ronald Reagan and re-appointed to the commission by George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — said “if it turns out that any money in fact is being knowingly put into the process from foreign companies or from foreign government sources, that would be a serious problem.” Watch it:

Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, went further. He told ThinkProgress that there was “absolutely no doubt” that there is a potential for the Chamber to violate election law, and called for much tougher enforcement of campaign finance regulations:

To me there is absolutely no doubt that this is a back-door way to get around what are long-standing and legitimate restrictions. This is happening not just because of Citizen’s United, it’s also happening because we have an utterly worthless and feckless Federal Election Commission and an IRS code that needs serious toughening and revamping. We also have a very serious need to have the IRS look at the regulations involving 527s and especially 501(c)(4)s — regulations that are being flouted and abused even as we speak.

Good government groups are weighing in as well. Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan organization that works on democracy and governance issues, said that the ThinkProgress report “raises a series of very important questions that must be addressed”:

The CAP article shows that we need an immediate investigation to determine whether the Chamber of Commerce is using foreign money to fund its $75 million campaign to influence the 2010 federal elections, since that would be illegal. If the Chamber wants to make the case that they are keeping their foreign funds away from being spent on campaign activities, they ought to do so publicly and disclose how they are accomplishing this since money is fungible.

David Donnelly, national campaigns director for Public Campaign Action Fund, said:

The Chamber opposes transparency in political spending. They support outsourcing jobs overseas. They’re taking foreign money. And now they basically say, “trust us” when there’s mounting evidence they’re outsourcing the funding of their political attacks ads? Yeah, right. They should immediately pull any ads they’re running, and any candidate benefiting from their spending ought to join us in demanding the Chamber come clean.

Not all groups agree, of course. The conservative Center for Competitive Politics asserted in a memo that the Chamber should simply be trusted. “[I]n America, that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work. Individuals and groups are not presumed to have violated the law based on a bogus blog post from a political opponent which cites tenuous evidence to show ‘likely’ violations of the law.” When pressed during a phone interview with ThinkProgress, Jeff Patch, the group’s communications director and author of the memo, reiterated that the Chamber should simply be trusted. “It doesn’t seem to be that there’s any evidence they’ve used the funds for political activity,” he said. “I think the answer is generally, yeah, we do trust organizations unless there’s a clear indication they violated the law.” It’s hard to consider evidence, however, when the Chamber refuses to release any evidence whatsoever of their accounting methods. Patch acknowledged this, but said “I don’t know what they would do besides releasing a forensic audit of their funds.” If the outcry continues and the FEC does begin a serious investigation, perhaps that’s exactly what will happen.


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