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FEC cannot release investigative records of Democrats, unions

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FEC cannot release investigative records of Democrats, unions

  • A federal appeals court says the FEC’s disclosure policy needs to account for First Amendment rights of political parties and unions.

June 23, 2003 — Many of the Federal Election Commission’s investigative records on the Democratic National Committee and the AFL-CIO will remain under wraps until the FEC can implement a narrower disclosure policy, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. ruled Friday.

The committee and the labor unions sued the FEC to block the release of thousands of pages of documents generated during a three-year probe of the Democratic Party and labor union activity during the 1996 election. The FEC began releasing the documents after it dismissed the Republican-initiated complaints against the committee and the labor unions.

The appeals court upheld U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler’s 2001 ruling barring the documents’ release. The ban on disclosure is contrary to the FEC’s policy of disclosing the records and alters access to information that used to be public.

“There’s no question that the public and press’ ability to get information is going to be more limited,” said Mark Glaze, a spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge David Tatel said the FEC’s disclosure policy “fails to account for the substantial First Amendment interests implicated in releasing political groups’ strategic documents and other internal materials.”

The Democratic committee and the labor unions claim the FEC’s plans to release details about their members and political strategies would chill the organizations’ abilities to recruit members and effectively operate.

“We think the court’s emphasis on the First Amendment considerations here was just right,” AFL-CIO attorney Larry Gold told The Associated Press. “We thought the long-standing policy of dumping virtually the entire investigative file in the public record was unfair and invited abuse by political opponents filing complaints in order to access strategic information.”

Despite the bar on disclosure, the appeals court said promoting commission accountability and deterring future violations “may well justify releasing more information than the minimum disclosure” required by federal election law. But the FEC could tailor its disclosure policy to avoid infringing on the First Amendment rights of organizations it investigates, the court said.

By law, the decision-making body of the FEC consists of no more than three members of any political party and cannot take action without four votes. It’s the sole agency with power to investigate federal election law violations. In recent years, the commission has faced scrutiny for it poor record of investigating and punishing violations.

FEC spokesman Ian Stirton said the agency has not decided if it will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

(AFL-CIO v. Federal Election Commission) KH

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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