Conservative group to challenge Chris Van Hollen on campaign finance

Conservative group to challenge Chris Van Hollen on campaign finance
FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2014, file photo, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., speaks as Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid enthusiastically endorsed Van Hollen Friday, March 6 for the U.S. Senate, an early attempt by a key Democrat to clear the field and avoid a divisive primary campaign to replace Maryland's longtime Democratic incumbent Sen. Barbara Mikulski. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) ORG XMIT: WX112 (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

A conservative legal group plans to file a Federal Election Commission complaint against Rep. Chris Van Hollen, alleging the Montgomery County Democrat failed to disclose in-kind legal assistance he received when he sued the government in 2011 in an effort to strengthen campaign finance regulations.

Cause of Action Institute, a Washington-based group that opposed Van Hollen's lawsuit, will argue that the congressman's campaign should have disclosed the pro bono legal work on its FEC reports because the lawsuit benefited his campaign.


The complaint, which the group said it will file Tuesday, is similar to one the National Republican Congressional Committee considered in 2014. The organization -- the campaign arm of House Republicans -- later shelved the idea, according to reports at the time by the Center for Public Integrity.

Van Hollen, one of his party's most outspoken voices in favor of tougher campaign finance rules and now candidate for Senate, sued the FEC in 2011, claiming the agency did not go far enough to require companies, unions and other groups that pay for political advertising to disclose their donors. The FEC's regulation was upheld in January by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

In making his case, Van Hollen relied on legal help from Democracy 21, a campaign finance watchdog group, and others.

The initial lawsuit was handled by Van Hollen's congressional office, and House ethics rules specifically permit a member to accept pro bono legal assistance for the purposes of "challenging the validity of any federal law or regulation." At the time, it was Van Hollen's congressional office -- not his campaign -- that, for instance, alerted reporters to the lawsuit.

But Cause of Action points to other factors in arguing that pro bono legal work should count as a campaign contribution. For starters, the group says, Van Hollen noted his future candidacy -- and the harm he felt the FEC's regulation might cause to his campaign -- to establish standing in federal court.

Van Hollen also frequently has made his positions on campaign finance a centerpiece of his reelection efforts.

"It appears, however, that Rep. Van Hollen does not live by the same rules and standards he would impose on others," Cause of Action Institute argues in its complaint.

The group -- which does not disclose its own funding -- is a nonprofit that describes itself as a "nonpartisan government oversight organization." In its complaint, the group says it works to "restrict federal overreach, ensure government accountability, and prevent the fraudulent use of American taxpayer money."

The group's executive director previously worked as an attorney for the Charles Koch Foundation as well as the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee when it was chaired by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California. The Koch family has frequently been criticized by Democrats, including Van Hollen, for funneling money to federal elections.

Tax records reviewed by the Los Angeles Times show that by 2013, Cause of Action Institute was mostly funded by $4.35 million from Donors Trust, a nonprofit group through which the Kochs and their allies distribute tens of millions of dollars without disclosing the sources of the funds.

"This Koch Brothers-funded group is trying to silence Chris Van Hollen because he is leading fight against their secret money machine," Van Hollen campaign spokeswoman Bridgett Frey said in a statement. "He will not be silenced and he will not stop fighting until we end secret money in politics."

A statement from Democracy 21 described the group's complaint as "frivolous" and said the claims are "contradicted by the House ethics rules and the federal campaign finance laws."

The underlying question posed by the complaint is whether or not the legal services should count as a contribution. Federal law defines a campaign contribution as any gift or item of value made "for the purpose of influencing any election for federal office."

Cause of Action Institute argues that Van Hollen's lawsuit "must be seen as campaign-related because of the close association between [its] subjects and Rep. Van Hollen's policy initiatives and campaign rhetoric." Van Hollen, the complaint contends, "continues to make the increased disclosure of corporate political spending a key policy issue of both his candidacy and his time in office."


Republicans made the same argument in 2014. At the time, a spokeswoman for the NRCC told the Center for Public Integrity that "it is beyond ironic for [Van Hollen] to file a lawsuit asking for stricter regulations on reporting political campaign finances and then fail to adhere to existing federal election campaign guidelines."

The Center for Public Integrity reported months later that the complaint was never filed.

FEC complaints are shrouded in secrecy "to protect the interests of those involved," according to the agency's website. The commission does not confirm a complaint has been made until it has been resolved, a process that can take months or years -- and, frequently, is not sorted out until after the election at hand is over.

Van Hollen is seeking the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat that will be left open next year by retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. He faces Rep. Donna F. Edwards in the state's April 26 primary.