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Lee's super PAC request hits snag

Published November 24, 2011 9:32 am

Politics • The Federal Election Commission is set to vote Thursday on senator's proposal.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

At least one member of the Federal Election Commission opposes Sen. Mike Lee's request to be the first politician to head his own super PAC.

The commission issued a draft advisory opinion Wednesday that if adopted would shoot down the Utah senator's request to turn his Constitutional Conservatives Fund into a political action committee capable of accepting big dollar checks directly from corporations and unions. The commission set the vote for Thursday.

A draft opinion means that at least one of the six commissioners disagrees with Lee's legal argument, but other commissioners could release their own drafts before the official meeting — and that's exactly what Lee's attorney Dan Backer is banking on.

"Obviously we don't agree with the commission's interpretations of the relevant law," Backer said. "My hope is that a second draft is released by some of the commissioners that properly interprets the law in support of free speech."

Lee has argued that it's only fair for politicians to be able to run a super PAC if a corporation or union can. If approved, he would use any money raised to support like-minded Republican candidates. He would be barred from spending the money on his own re-election efforts.

Backer argues that this distinction, along with an agreement that Lee wouldn't personally solicit large donations, should satisfy the FEC.

But the draft opinion says Lee's request flies in the face of the 2002 campaign finance law that expressly prohibits elected officials from being associated with a political entity that collects money beyond the legal limits. For a PAC such as the Constitutional Conservatives Fund, the limit is $5,000 per person per year and a complete ban on corporate giving.

That opinion is shared by Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center, who opposes the creation of super PACs and Lee's attempt to allow politicians to directly take part in their operation. He called the request a "slam dunk" and expects the commission to vote against Backer and Lee on Thursday.

Super PACs are an outgrowth of the Supreme Court's Citizen United ruling, giving corporations and unions the ability to spend unlimited sums on political communications as long as they don't coordinate directly with candidates.

These groups played a significant role in the 2010 midterm elections and super PACs set up to support presidential candidates have already spent millions of dollars on TV ads.

mcanham@sltrib.com