The FEC Just Slapped Koch Brothers Groups with a Big Fine

The FEC Just Slapped Koch Brothers Groups with a Big Fine

In a sign that, surely, the end times are near, the partisan-deadlocked Federal Election Commission actually agreed to enforce campaign-finance laws—six years after the fact.  

Three groups funded by Charles and David Koch’s expansive political network agreed to pay $233,000 in fines to the FEC for illegally hiding the identities of donors to their 2010 political ad campaigns, according to a Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) press release. The watchdog group filed a FEC complaint against several groups in 2014.

The complaint centered on the 60 Plus Association, the American Future Fund, and Americans for Job Security. These social-welfare nonprofits spent millions of dollars that they received from the Center to Protect Patient Rights (CPPR), which at the time was the Koch brothers’ main political vehicle, without disclosing the source of the money.

That would have been fine if the organizations had used the money for general expenses, as they originally claimed in FEC filings. Social-welfare groups, however, are required to disclose the source of donations if the money is earmarked for specific political activities.

The groups probably would have stayed way below the federal radar, like so many other dark-money groups. But Sean Noble, a political operative for CPPR who helped dole out the Kochs’ money, blabbed to National Review in 2014 that he was closely involved in producing and targeting the ads.

At that point, CREW filed a complaint with the FEC. The agency opened an investigation and eventually found that Noble’s consulting firm helped produce and place the ads for the groups.

“These rules provide some of the only windows into the funding of dark money groups, but the FEC almost never penalizes groups that break them,” CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said in a statement. “It is hard to overstate how significant this is.”

While $233,000 may seem like a small amount of money for groups flush with Koch cash (and it is), it’s a huge sum for the FEC. In the first five months of 2016, the FEC has only levied $273,000 in total civil penalties—an average of $15,000 per violation. But this enforcement action is a drop in the bucket of dark-money spending.

Unfortunately, even when the FEC does take action it can come long after the violation actually occurs: The move comes six years after the ads actually ran, and the agency likely wouldn’t have levied any penalties if one political operative hadn’t bragged to the press. Campaign-finance reformers contend that the FEC must act with greater speed and strength in order to deter political puppetmasters like the Koch brothers from playing politics in the shadows.

But reformers have to take their wins where they can get them, and when the FEC actually agrees to take action—against the Kochs, no less—that is a big win.

“This is the largest fine the FEC has collected from groups active in post–Citizens United elections,” Bookbinder said. “This case sends an important signal that groups that brazenly disregard the law will be held accountable. We hope this is a sign of things to come and the FEC will continue to hit dark money groups with major penalties for violating the law.”