Democrats, labor sue FEC over re-release of investigation records

Monday, July 16, 2001

(Editor’s note: U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler issued a preliminary injunction July 16 blocking the Federal Election Commission from releasing documents from its inquiry into campaign activities coordinated by the Democratic National Committee and the AFL-CIO, the Associated Press reported. Kessler’s order, which came the day before the agency planned to release the records, will remain in effect until at least October, when she will receive the final arguments in the case.)

The Democratic Party and a leading labor union filed a joint lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission on July 13, seeking to prevent agency officials from re-releasing 6,000 pages of documents detailing an investigation of the groups’ joint work during the 1996 elections.

The documents first saw public light, albeit only for a few days, in May when the FEC released them as part of a longstanding policy of “automatic disclosure” of records from closed or resolved investigations. But the FEC withdrew the documents in response to a protest from the Democratic National Committee and the AFL-CIO.

On July 10, the commission voted 4-0 to return the documents to public view. DNC and AFL-CIO officials filed suit in federal district court four days later, contending the disclosure amounted to an invasion of privacy, a release of trade secrets and a violation of First Amendment assembly rights.

“We think the court should hear the merits of the case before these documents are released,” said Rick Hess, a DNC spokesman. “These documents should be kept private until the court has a chance to decide.”

But the commission disagreed, following a recommendation from Lois Lerner, its acting general counsel, who said such records show how the FEC handles its investigations and “thus promotes confidence in the integrity of the Commission in fulfilling its enforcement obligations.”

The commission had opted to wait until July 17 to re-release the documents to allow the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO time to file the legal challenge.

The records come from a lengthy FEC investigation that looked into how closely the state chapters of the Democratic Party, the DNC and the AFL-CIO worked during the 1996 elections. The FEC reported that it found “an extraordinary degree” of coordinated activity.

But the commission opted to close the case last year in the wake of several court decisions determining that several instances of coordinated activity did not violate federal election laws.

Under FEC policy, the commission must review all records from closed or resolved cases and release records not expressly exempt from Freedom of Information laws within 30 days.

After the officials released the documents from the investigation, the DNC and the AFL-CIO demanded that the FEC withdraw all but three of the 6,024 documents, contending the records detail personal information, trade secrets and vital campaign plans.

But Lerner, in her memo, said such complaints had no grounds because most of the information was in the public domain even before the release in May. Some of the records, she noted, were readily available on the AFL-CIO Web site.

“There is nothing particularly secret about the fact the Democratic Party engages in a coordinated grassroots campaign with its candidates and supporters during federal election years, ” Lerner wrote. “And there does not appear to be anything in those documents that would reveal any special techniques or demographic information that is not publicly available.”

The Republican National Committee praised the decision, saying it keeps in line with understood policy. DNC and AFL-CIO protests about the records, an RNC spokesman said, caused some concern.

“It raised a red flag with us, the public and now finally the FEC,” said Kevin Sheridan. “The DNC and the AFL-CIO wanted to go to great lengths to keep their activities secret.”

Hess agreed that the two groups wanted to keep the records secret because they detail constitutionally protected rights. They hope the court will halt release of the records, he said.

“Just as the Republicans don’t want everyone seeing their trade secrets, we don’t want to turn over all of our records,” Hess added.

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