FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub testifies on Capitol Hill in May.

FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub testifies on Capitol Hill in May. Carolyn Kaster/AP

In Act of Defiance, FEC Chair Tweets Memo on Foreign Election Interference Over GOP Commissioner's Objections

Chairwoman Weintraub said a Republican commissioner last week blocked publication of the guidance in a weekly digest of FEC activities.

The Democratic chairwoman of the independent, bipartisan agency responsible for enforcing the nation’s campaign finance laws on Friday tweeted the full version of a weekly newsletter containing a draft memo on foreign campaign interference, alleging that a Republican commissioner had attempted to block its publication. 

Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub said that Republican Commissioner Caroline Hunter took an “unprecedented step” of objecting to including in the commission’s weekly digest of activities a draft memo that summarizes the FEC’s rulings on prohibition of foreign national contributions in elections. Hunter allegedly blocked the entire publication as a result. On Friday in a now-viral tweet thread, Weintraub explained the situation and disseminated the information that would have gone in the digest.  

“I always thought these anti-regulatory people liked the First Amendment well enough,” Weintraub wrote. “I guess they think it's just for corporations. I'm not fond of anyone trying to suppress my speech.” 

Hunter did not respond to a request for comment. 

Weintraub’s “Draft Interpretive Rule Concerning Prohibited Activities Involving Foreign Nationals,” which was already published on the FEC’s website on Sept. 26, summarizes the FEC’s interpretation of rules against foreign national contributions to elections. It states, “The Commission has recognized the ‘broad scope’ of the foreign national contribution prohibition and found that even where the value of a good or service ‘may be nominal or difficult to ascertain,’ such contributions are nevertheless banned.”

Austin Evers, executive director of the watchdog American Oversight, said he is “deeply troubled” by the allegations that Hunter blocked the draft rule from being included in the newsletter. “It shouldn’t controversial for [the FEC] to send a reminder” about illegal campaign contributions, he said. However, “the president of the United States is sending deeply mixed signals about what is and what is not illegal when you’re running a campaign.” 

The FEC, which is supposed to have a six-member board, needs four members for its proceedings to be valid, but only has three whose terms have expired. They are allowed to remain until new ones are appointed; however, the FEC cannot hold meetings, start audits, create new rules or impose fines on those who violate campaign finance laws. On Saturday, at the annual political gathering the Texas Tribune Festival, Weintraub acknowledged that the FEC cannot adopt her rule, yet said she decided to tweet the newsletter, containing the draft rule, because “some guidance would be really useful and would help inform the public.” 

Prior to the allegations, on Sept. 26, Weintraub tweeted the link to her draft rule and emphasized the “broad scope” of  foreign national contributions. This was the day after the Justice Department’s criminal division cleared President Trump of violating campaign finance laws as a result of the call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that sparked a whistleblower complaint. 

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said that in August, the department received a criminal referral related to the call from the intelligence community’s inspector general. “All relevant components of the department agreed with this legal conclusion, and the department has concluded the matter,” she said. 

While the FEC handles civil violations of federal campaign finance law and Justice handles criminal, “the majority of external referrals received by the Commission originate with the U.S. Department of Justice,” according to a FEC guidebook. “The fact that a person is or was the subject of a DoJ investigation or prosecution does not necessarily preclude the commission from civilly pursuing that person for violations.”