FEC Republicans Defend Employer Political Coercion Vote

FEC Republicans Defend Employer Political Coercion Vote

Amid a burst of anger from Washington watchdogs, the Federal Election Commission’s three Republican commissioners have defended their recent decision to vote against investigating coal company Murray Energy’s alleged political coercion of salaried employees. Company executives had been accused of pressuring workers to contribute money to Murray Energy’s political action committee.

But the Republican commissioners staunchly asserted employers’ rights to engage in politics at the workplace. In a statement released Friday, FEC Chairman Matthew Peterson and fellow GOP Commissioners Lee Goodman and Caroline Hunter wrote: “Because we are addressing the fundamental First Amendment rights of persons to engage in political speech, including asking one another to support or oppose one candidate or another, the proposal to punish people based upon subjective feelings, rather than objective, discernible actions, fails to give clear notice of the law and appears calculated to chill virtually all solicitations in the workplace.”

In a 2012 article in The New Republic, Murray Energy employees who declined to identify themselves alleged that their year-end bonuses had been linked to their levels of political giving. The article led FEC investigators to look into the case, and commission staff members recommended to the commission that it find that the company had violated federal election law by “coercing Murray Energy employees to make contributions to federal candidates and participate in fundraising activities supporting federal candidates.”

The Republican commissioners cast doubt on the sources in the article, calling their comments “unsworn, anonymous, hearsay statements,” and said there was not enough “persuasive evidence” to warrant action. Additionally, the commissioners said that the company’s alleged contribution requests “took place six to nine years ago, outside of the statute of limitations.”

The GOP commissioners further argued that while Murray Energy’s solicitation to employees illustrated the election’s importance to the coal industry, and to the jobs it creates, the company didn’t threaten reprisal if employees didn’t contribute.

“Soliciting another person to give money to a candidate or political committee may naturally be uncomfortable to the solicited individual,” the Republicans stated. “That is no less true in the context of a supervisor-subordinate relationship. But a solicitation is at its core a protected First Amendment activity.”

The FEC’s three Democratic commissioners had voted in favor of action, declaring last month: “This case of political coercion in the workplace reverberates beyond the realm of U.S. elections. It goes to the very core of the relationship between employer and employee. Every citizen should feel free to give—or not to give—to the candidates and political causes of their choice, inspired by their own convictions, and free from outside pressure or coercion.”

The deadlocked vote, which has become the FEC’s default mode, has aroused concern among watchdogs who warn that the commission’s failure to act sends a signal to employers that they are now free to more aggressively solicit contributions from employees.