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Election commission sues Forbes over columns during campaign

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SECOND CIRCUIT--Publisher Steve Forbes was sued in late August by the Federal Election Commission, which claimed that Forbes' magazine columns…

SECOND CIRCUIT–Publisher Steve Forbes was sued in late August by the Federal Election Commission, which claimed that Forbes’ magazine columns written during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 amounted to illegal campaign contributions.

Forbes, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Forbes Magazine, is named in the suit along with his “Forbes for President” campaign committee, committee treasurer William Dal Col, and Forbes, Inc., which publishes the magazine. The complaint claims that Forbes accepted prohibited corporate contributions and “failed to report the commentaries as in-kind contributions.”

The FEC argued that Steve Forbes “disseminated his opinions about issues on which he was also relying in his presidential campaign in his ‘Fact and Comment’ columns after becoming a presidential candidate. These issues included, among others, the flat tax, capital gains taxes, term limits, Bosnia foreign, abortion, and the gold standard. These ‘Fact and Comment’ columns were not bona fide news accounts and were not part of a general pattern of campaign-related news accounts which give reasonably equal coverage to all opposing candidates.”

Under the Federal Election Campaign Act, costs incurred by the news media in covering campaigns do not constitute contributions unless the new organization is controlled by a political party or candidate. In such cases, costs incurred for a “bona fide” news account which “is part of a general pattern of campaign-related news accounts which give reasonably equal coverage to all opposing candidates in the circulation or listening area” are not considered contributions.

According to the FEC complaint, the commission first told Forbes in mid-December 1996 that the columns constituted an illegal campaign contribution under the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. The FEC complaint says that it only decided to pursue a civil action against the former presidential candidate in early June 1998.

The FEC has valued the columns Forbes wrote at $94,900. If Forbes and the other parties are found liable under the act, they could be fined up to $5,000 each in damages, and could be enjoined from receiving any further contributions related to the campaign.

Steve Forbes, in a written statement, said he considers the FEC action “a frightening effort by the FEC to unconstitutionally and impermissibly control basic political expression and the freedoms of speech and the press.” He contends that none of his columns mentioned or referred to his bid for the presidency and all were merely expressions of his opinion as a columnist for the magazine. He also said that because his columns did not expressly advocate the election or defeat of any candidate, he did not violate campaign finance law.

In a statement issued by the magazine, Forbes Inc. refers to the complaint as a “disturbing assault on Forbes Magazine’s constitutional right to publish editorials and commentary on issues of the day without interference from the federal government.”

Cleta Mitchell, the magazine’s attorney, said Forbes and the other parties had not yet responded to the complaint in late September. (Federal Election Commission v. Forbes, Jr.; Media Counsel: Cleta Mitchell, Washington, D.C.)