The Justice Department has inserted itself into a court case involving Iowa Values, a dark money group with ties to Sen. Joni Ernst, arguing the Federal Election Commission cannot be compelled to investigate the charges against Iowa Values because it does not have enough voting members.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark on Friday filed a “statement of interest” in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center (CLC) has not established adequate reasoning to sue the Federal Election Commission for its lack of action on the complaint it filed against Iowa Values in December 2019.
Adav Noti, senior director of trial litigation at Campaign Legal Center, described the Justice Department’s intervention in the case as “shady and completely improper.”
“For DOJ — which by law has no role in this case — to insert itself after a judgement has been issued, and to only do that after the judgement appears to be causing some political harm to the President’s ally, it looks terrible, and it’s exactly why the Department of Justice has no role in these cases,” Noti told Starting Line. “They really should not have gotten involved. They have no place in the matter, and by inserting themselves they’ve made it look like the Department of Justice is taking a political position rather than a legal one.”
Because the FEC does not have the four commissioners necessary to act on campaign finance complaints, the Justice Department argues, it cannot be expected to investigate CLC’s claims against Iowa Values. The Justice Department filed its statement in response to an Oct. 14 judgement from U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth stating the FEC must take action on the Campaign Legal Center’s complaint within 90 days.
“It is the understanding of the United States that the Commission (FEC) cannot currently exercise its power to defend cases like this … because only three of the Commission’s six seats are presently filled,” the Justice Department states. “The Commission thus lacks the four votes required to authorize its General Counsel to appear to defend this case or to ask the Justice Department to defend this case on the Commission’s behalf.
“The Commission lacks the ability to defend itself in this action and no other party has addressed the jurisdiction of this Court, so this Court understandably entered a default judgement against the Commission,” the Justice Department continues. “However, the Department believes it necessary to submit this Statement on behalf of the United States to assist this Court in determining whether that judgement must be vacated, as it does not appear that the Commission will have a quorum soon.”
According to Noti, if the FEC fails to comply with the judge’s order, CLC can sue Iowa Values directly.
“They’re pretty egregious violations, even in the current world where coordination between candidates and outside groups really pushes the boundaries,” Noti said. “This was fairly egregious conduct by this Iowa Values group in support of the Ernst campaign.”
The Justice Department emphasized it is not representing the Federal Election Commission in its court fight with the Campaign Legal Center, but wanted to file a statement in court “based on its interest in ensuring that agencies of the Executive Branch are not burdened by default judgements, caused by structural barriers to representation, that a court may lack jurisdiction to enter.”
Iowa Values is a tax-exempt 501 (c)(4) that CLC and others have accused of illegally coordinating with Ernst’s reelection campaign by placing ads, releasing statements and soliciting donations in her favor.
The Campaign Legal Center first filed a complaint Dec. 19, 2019 with the FEC — days after the Associated Press reported evidence of illegal coordination between Iowa Values and Ernst’s campaign — arguing Iowa Values “violated FECA (Federal Employees Compensation Act) by failing to register as a political committee and file reports disclosing its contributors, expenditures and debts.”
A CLC court filing from September references ads supportive of Ernst placed on Google and Facebook by Iowa Values. It also references Claire Holloway Avella, a fundraiser for Ernst’s campaign committee, and the email solicitations she made to a perspective donor on behalf of Iowa Values.
The complaint reads, in part: Iowa Values “advertisements on Google and Facebook, in light of of their focus on Senator Ernst’s character as a ‘leader’ for Iowa, are susceptible to no reasonable interpretation other than as electoral advocacy for Senator Ernst, and that these ads substantiate Iowa Values’s major purpose of reelecting Senator Ernst.”
The Ernst campaign has denied illegally coordinating with outside groups, and in a statement to the Cedar Rapids Gazette in light of the judge’s order, said “We look forward to the FEC having a quorum to review this false partisan attack from [Theresa] Greenfield and her allies.”
The Campaign Legal Center is not the only group to ask the FEC to investigate Iowa Values. The Campaign for Accountability and American Democracy Legal Fund also filed complaints in light of the AP’s reporting early this year.
Despite several complaints against Iowa Values and other political nonprofits, Noti said the Justice Department’s intervention in this case was “very unusual” because it rarely, if ever, intervenes in cases involving the Federal Election Commission due to the political nature of the cases FEC investigates.
“They’ve only shown up in one active case,” Noti said, “which happens to involve one of the president’s allies in a hotly contested election. I don’t know how else to explain that besides politics. … All of it looks terrible. It looks like further politicization of the Department of Justice, which is a really unfortunate trend in the current administration.”
By Elizabeth Meyer
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