Politics

Complaint: Dark Money Fuels Dem Congressman’s Fight Against Dark Money

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A leading congressional foe of “secret” money in politics failed to report the free legal aid he received from a group funded by secret donors, according to a complaint Cause of Action Institute expects to file Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat seeking a U.S. Senate seat in Maryland, violated FEC rules by failing to disclose “hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions in the form of pro bono legal services” he received from the left-leaning nonprofit activist group Democracy 21 in campaign finance report, the right-leaning non-profit government accountability group Cause of Action Institute claims.

Van Hollen has used the pro bono services since at least 2011 in litigation against the FEC for creating confusing regulations governing the disclosure of donors behind ads, according to the institute.

“Ironically, those non-disclosed contributions have been made and received in connection with the FEC court litigation and the FEC rule-making petition that have been pursued ostensibly to eradicate ‘secret’ money in politics,” reads a draft of the institute’s complaint obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“When it comes to transparency and disclosure, Rep. Van Hollen, in his own words, has denied ‘the American people basic information of who is trying to influence their votes’ by ‘[r]efusing to disclose the sources of money used in [his] political campaigns,’” the complaint draft said.

Democracy 21 discloses some of the major grants it receives on its website, including the liberal George Soros-backed Open Society Foundations Funds, but doesn’t make public individual donors’ identities.

Democracy 21’s assistance to Van Hollen came through the Campaign Legal Center. The law firm Wilmer Cutler Picking Hale and Dorr LLP also provided pro bono legal services Van Hollen failed to disclose, according to the institute.

Van Hollen’s 2011 lawsuit originated from his congressional office, but the institute contends 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’s lawsuit claimed an FEC rule requiring corporations and labor organizations to only disclose donations “made for the purpose of furthering electioneering communications” was an incorrect interpretation of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Van Hollen argued that all groups should disclose all donations.

A U.S. Appeals Court sided with the FEC against Van Hollen in January and reversed a U.S. District Court’s decision that struck down the FEC rule.

Bridgett Frey, spokeswoman for the Van Hollen for Senate Campaign, said Cause of Action Institute is trying diverting attention away from its own funding, which isn’t publicly disclosed.

“This Koch Brothers-funded group is trying to silence Chris Van Hollen because he is leading fight against their secret money machine,” Frey told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “He will not be silenced and he will not stop fighting until we end secret money in politics.”

Frey claimed the Koch funding comes from a group known as Donors Trust, which, like Democracy 21, provides donors an anonymous channel through which to contribute to causes they support.

Democracy 21 said the pro bono legal services it provided Van Hollen “are explicitly permitted by the Ethics Manual of the House of Representatives.”

“The pro bono legal services provided to bring the FEC into compliance with the law are not contributions to a candidate, are not services rendered to a political committee and are not covered by federal campaign finance laws,” Democracy 21 said in a statement. “Pro bono legal services have been provided in the past to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to participate in campaign finance cases.”

Van Hollen is opposed in the Democratic primary race against Rep. Donna Edwards for Maryland’s open Senate seat. Van Hollen has represented Maryland’s eighth congressional district since 2003.

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