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Independent Group
Feeling FEC Fines

The Federal Election Commission today continued its push to clamp down on freewheeling political activity by the independent groups known as 527s, reaching a settlement with the group Club for Growth that will require the conservative political organization to pay a $350,000 fine for failing to register with the FEC as a political committee and report its contributions and expenditures.

If approved by a federal judge, the penalty would be the largest the FEC has ever obtained after taking an enforcement case to court.

Club for Growth President Pat Toomey posted a statement on the group's website today saying the settlement will not impact the group's activities. "The Club for Growth will continue to fight for pro-growth policies, including, lower taxes, limited government, individual freedom, free trade, school choice, entitlement reform, and greater political free speech," Toomey wrote.

But the decision marks the latest incremental development in the FEC's oversight of these independent groups, which in the past have raised and spent millions of dollars on television ads, mailers and other activities that appeared to be clearly aimed at influencing presidential and congressional campaigns. The groups had succeeded in operating without registering as official campaign committees -- and without being subjected to strict fundraising limits -- by avoiding the use of "magic words" such as "vote for" or "vote against" in their literature.

But the FEC now appears to be using a tougher standard in determining what messages or activity would force such a group to register with them.

"The FEC has made clear that it is applying an express advocacy test that is broader," said Paul S. Ryan, who tracks the FEC for the Campaign Legal Center. "Any organization out there that hopes to influence federal elections but plans on not registering as a political committee will have to try and figure out where the line has moved."

While the FEC has not clearly outlined a definition, Ryan said, outcomes such as the Club for Growth decision appear to signal that independent groups will have to avoid activity that no reasonable person could understand as anything but an appeal for the election or defeat of a candidate.

--Matthew Mosk

By Washington Post editors  |  September 5, 2007; 3:30 PM ET
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