In August 2018, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) filed an administrative complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) demonstrating that a dark money group called 45Committee, Inc. (45Committee) violated federal campaign finance law by failing to register as a political committee and disclose its donors.
45Committee, which is named for the campaign to elect the 45th President of the United States, was created in 2015 for the purpose of airing advertisements opposing then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. After the Republican Party nominated Donald J. Trump in 2016, however, 45Committee was taken over by TD Ameritrade heir Todd Ricketts for the purpose of operating as a “nondisclosing vehicle” for Republican donors who found publicly supporting Trump “embarrassing.”
To provide a “nondisclosing vehicle,” and defying federal laws requiring it to do so, 45Committee opted not to register as a PAC, which would have required it to disclose its contributors. Instead, in the five weeks leading up to the 2016 election, 45Committee spent as much as $38 million supporting the election of Trump and opposing Clinton. During this time, the group ran over 5,000 ads to this effect—more than the Republican National Committee itself. All the while, 45Committee refused to disclose its donors, leaving the American public in the dark about who was taking such drastic measures to influence the 2016 election.
After waiting over a year-and-a-half for the FEC to act on its administrative complaint, CLC sued. Following the procedure outlined in the Federal Election Campaign Act, CLC filed suit against the FEC itself for failing to enforce federal transparency laws. In November 2021, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia deemed the FEC’s inaction “contrary to law” and ordered the FEC to act on CLC’s complaint within 30 days. The FEC failed to do so. Given the FEC’s inaction, the court then authorized CLC to file suit against 45Committee directly for its violations of federal campaign finance law.
What's at Stake?
Transparency around who is spending money to support or oppose candidates for federal office is a cornerstone of our democracy. Under federal law, organizations that exist predominantly to engage in political activity—including spending money on political advertising to support their preferred candidate—are required to register as political committees (PACs) with the FEC and report their donors, along with other information about their financial resources.
In the administrative complaint filed with the FEC in 2018, CLC demonstrated that 45Committee’s major purpose—as evidenced by its name, political spending in 2016, fundraising appeals and public statements—was to support the election of its preferred candidates—namely Donald Trump. Nonetheless, 45Committee never registered as a political committee and never filed the required reports disclosing its contributors, expenditures or debts and obligations.
By allowing organizations like 45Committee to evade federal law and leave the public in the dark about who is spending money to influence elections without repercussion, the FEC undermines public trust in our elections. The lack of enforcement and lack of any consequence for illegal behavior encourages 45Committee and others who seek to emulate 45Committee’s activities to continue to violate campaign finance law.
In order to ensure transparency and accountability in federal elections, violations like those uncovered by CLC here must be investigated and acted upon to ensure the public knows which interests are supporting or opposing candidates in future elections.