Utah’s Matt Petersen resigns FEC seat, leaving the regulatory agency toothless

(Screen capture from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse's Twitter account) A video of Federal Elections Commissioner Matthew Petersen, a former staffer to the late Sen. Bob Bennett and a graduate of Brigham Young University, being questioned about a possible judgeship has gone viral after he failed to answer several queries about rudimentary law by a Republican senator.

Washington • Utahn Matt Petersen is resigning his seat on the Federal Election Commission, leaving the panel overseeing campaign laws without a quorum of four commissioners and unable to conduct meetings and audits or make rules or issue fines or decisions on investigations.

Petersen, who grew up in Mapleton, has served on the FEC for 11 years and said in his resignation letter to President Donald Trump that it had been an honor to guide the commission through challenging times.

“Throughout my service, I have faithfully discharged my duty to enforce the law in a manner that respects free speech rights, while also fairly interpreting the relevant statues and regulations and providing meaningful notice to those subject to FEC jurisdiction,” Petersen wrote Trump.

Trump had nominated Petersen to serve as a federal judge in the District of Columbia but withdrew after he fumbled answers by senators during his confirmation hearing.

Petersen declined to say what he would do when his resignation is effective Friday but said, “It's been an incredible honor to serve on the FEC for 11 years across three administrations.”

President George W. Bush had first nominated Petersen, a former staffer to the late Sen. Bob Bennett, to the FEC in 2008, and he has served as chairman of the commission twice. He is currently the FEC’s vice chairman.

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His resignation leaves the FEC with only three of the six commission seats filled heading into the 2020 election cycle, meaning the commission can’t legally call any meetings, issue fines, conduct audits, make rules or made decisions on investigations.

Dave Levinthal, federal politics editor for the Center for Public Integrity, said Petersen’s departure will cause a “de facto FEC shutdown.”

“And while staff will continue to post campaign finance reports and attend to day-to-day functions, the commission itself can’t offer official advice to politicians and political committees who seek it,” Levinthal wrote on the center’s website.

Petersen has served much longer than the six-year term he was nominated to in 2008 because no one has been confirmed to fill his seat.

The president named Trey Trainor, a Texas attorney and Trump supporter, to the position two years ago, though the Senate has yet to take up his nomination.

The commission, by law, cannot have more than three members of one political party and two other departures, Democrat Ann Ravel and Republican Lee Goodman, have left the panel with only four members since early 2018.

That leaves Democrat Ellen Weintraub (who is heading the FEC), Republican Caroline Hunter and independent Steven Walther as the remaining members of the commission.

Trevor Potter, the president of the Campaign Legal Center and a former FEC chairman, said Trump and the Senate should treat Petersen's departure as an emergency.

“Without a functioning election watchdog, the vulnerabilities in U.S. elections that were exposed in 2016 by Russia will be exploited to greater effect by foreign and domestic actors in the 2020 election and beyond,” Potter said. “The public’s right to fair and transparent elections is at stake. In the 2020 election, political spending is expected to reach nearly $10 billion. With the campaign season in full swing, there is no time to waste in securing our democracy.”

Russia, which ran a campaign to boost Trump and hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, exploited weak FEC rules and will likely try to do so again, Potter said.

Between 1999 and 2008, the FEC issued $33.6 million in fines for campaign violations, the Campaign Legal Center said, while from 2009 to 2018, it issued $11.4 million in fines even as campaign spending exploded.

Hunter, the remaining Republican FEC commissioner, acknowledged the lack of a quorum will disrupt the FEC’s ability to take on many of its responsibilities but that the commission still has a staff that will do its job in answering questions from candidates and the public, disclosing campaign reports, litigating cases and conduction ongoing audits.

“Despite the lack of quorum," Hunter said, “I expect to be fully occupied while at the commission reviewing case files and preparing for new members to join the commission.”

Matt Sanderson, a Utah native and campaign finance attorney in Washington, said Petersen did a good job through a tumultuous time in election changes that include the Supreme Court case of Citizens United that allowed for super PACs to take in unlimited sums.

“Commissioner Petersen’s long tenure at the FEC overlapped with a period of considerable change in politics, technology and communication methods,” Sanderson said. “Some may disagree with the conclusions he reached in particular cases, but I think there is no doubt that he acted both thoughtfully and consistently in a very difficult job.”