Union Tribune

July 18, 2003

FEC's ruling on donations could affect Issa
Arizona leader told to follow federal law


WASHINGTON In a ruling that could have bearing on whether Rep. Darrell Issa broke the law while raising money to recall Gov. Gray Davis, the Federal Election Commission ruled yesterday that an Arizona congressman should follow federal law when raising money to put a measure before state voters.

The 5-1 ruling clears up some of the ambiguities surrounding the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform law. That law, which Congress passed last year, bars federal candidates and officeholders from raising so-called soft money which includes donations from corporations and labor unions and from soliciting donations larger than $2,000 from individuals.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., had asked the FEC whether he must follow the law while raising money to put a measure on the Arizona ballot.

Commissioners ruled that as long as Flake controlled, created or financed the ballot campaign committee and they found that he did he cannot solicit corporate or labor union donations for the effort, and he must abide by the contribution limits. If federal lawmakers do not control, create or finance ballot-campaign committees, however, they should not have to follow these limits, the FEC ruled.

"As a practical matter, if some federal candidate or officeholder is going to be controlling some ballot measure, they're basically going to have to" follow federal law, said Commissioner Scott Thomas, a Democrat.

The decision represents a compromise among the FEC's three Democrats and three Republicans, who tend to disagree on the new campaign law. Only one Republican, Commissioner David Mason, voted against the finding.

The issues in Flake's case are similar to those surrounding an FEC complaint against Issa because both raise questions about the extent to which federal lawmakers can get involved in state and local campaigns.

The complaint, filed by a Davis ally, says the Vista Republican broke the law because his Rescue California Committee the driving force behind the recall took money from Issa's real estate company, as well as several donations larger than $2,000.

Rescue California says it has gathered enough signatures to force a recall election of the Democratic governor this fall or next March. Yesterday's ruling will not affect whether there will be an election.

Issa's attorney, Ben Ginsberg, said Issa's case is different from Flake's because Issa will be a candidate to replace Davis should there be a recall. He might be exempt from federal law if he can establish that Rescue California is a vehicle for his gubernatorial aspirations.

Carroll Wills, a spokesman for Taxpayers Against the Governor's Recall, said Ginsberg's statement "strikes me as a rather weak argument."

"(Issa) can't make the claim that he is raising money for his gubernatorial campaign as an out . . . because Rescue California isn't a gubernatorial campaign," Wills said.