CLC Scores a Win with Harwell “Soft Money” Complaint

gavel and money.

When federal candidates raise money to run for office, there are important legal safeguards that limit how much they can raise from any contributor, prevent candidates from taking money from certain sources, like corporations and federal contractors, and require candidates to openly disclose who they are getting their money from, and how they are spending it.

These federal campaign finance laws help ensure that our elections are transparent, as well as assuring that candidates aren’t beholden to special interests in a way that could foster corruption or drown out everyday Americans’ voices in the political process.

Yet some candidates try to circumvent these bedrock campaign finance rules by raising and spending “soft money” — funds that don’t comply with federal campaign finance requirements — in connection with their campaigns for federal office.

That’s why Congress, over twenty years ago, passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), which made it illegal for federal candidates and officeholders to raise and spend soft money in federal elections.

Campaign Legal Center (CLC) filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) on November 15, 2022, alleging that Beth Harwell, a 2022 congressional candidate in Tennessee, violated BCRA when two state committees that Harwell had previously used to run for state office transferred $47,000 to a federal super PAC, “Government of the People,” which spent $113,000 on ads supporting Harwell or attacking her primary opponent, Andy Ogles.  

On April 12, the FEC published the documents in that case after entering into a settlement agreement with Harwell and her state committees, which required them to pay a $16,000 civil penalty for violating the law, as CLC’s complaint had alleged.

As CLC has frequently documented, the FEC often fails to investigate apparent violations of law, and frequently fails to enforce the law or impose penalties that are likely to deter future violations. In fact, the FEC has failed to enforce BCRA’s soft money prohibitions in multiple cases that started with CLC filing a complaint.

But the result in this case is a rare win that reflects the importance of the law and sends an essential message: Candidates must obey the law when seeking public office and will be held accountable if they don’t.

It is vital that the FEC continue sending that message. Just this election cycle, CLC has filed complaints against several presidential and congressional candidates for violating the soft money rules, and those complaints — which involve substantially larger sums than the $47,000 at issue in the Harwell matter — remain unresolved.

Once in a while, the FEC shows that it can muster the necessary consensus to enforce the law and protect voters. The agency must continue doing so as we approach the 2024 election.

As candidates, PACs, and political parties continue to raise and spend billions of dollars pursuing office, it’s more important than ever that this election spending be transparent and abide by the rules established to protect our democracy.

Saurav is the Director, Federal Campaign Finance Reform at CLC.