CLC Sues Secret Money Group, Heritage Action, for Violating Disclosure Laws

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Benjamin Franklin's face on the one hundred dollar bill seen peeking out from behind two pieces of torn paper

Campaign Legal Center (CLC) filed suit against Heritage Action for America, a political arm of the Heritage Foundation, which spent over $1 million in the 2018 election cycle to help elect numerous Republican candidates for Congress. The lawsuit alleges that Heritage Action failed to make mandatory disclosures of the donors who contributed to fund Heritage Action’s election spending.

This lawsuit, filed on May 5, 2022, adds to the growing number of cases where CLC has stepped in to enforce federal campaign finance laws directly against the alleged violators after the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has failed to act.

Here, the court ruled that the FEC’s failure to act violated the law, and that CLC’s complaint against Heritage Action was “credible” and “outline[d] a legitimate threat to the health of our electoral processes."

Federal law requires non-PAC entities making independent expenditures supporting federal candidates to publicly report the identity of the entity’s contributors for any amounts above small-donor contributions. This reporting ensures that American voters know who is spending to influence their vote.

Heritage Action –– the 501(c)(4) entity arm of the Heritage Foundation — announced its plans to spend over $1 million on political ads to help Republican congressional candidates in 2018 but never disclosed its contributors.

CLC’s lawsuit asks the court to find that Heritage Action was obligated to file reports with the FEC disclosing its donors and its fundraising and spending in support of designated candidates.

This lawsuit is the result of more than three years of effort by CLC to prod the FEC to enforce federal law against Heritage Action. CLC first alerted the FEC of Heritage Action’s potential violations in 2018.

Organizations like Heritage Action are able to push the boundaries of anti-corruption laws because they know that the FEC is unlikely to enforce the law against them, given political gridlock at the Commission.

After waiting more than 850 days for the FEC to act on the matter, CLC sued the FEC in 2021 in federal court over its delay.

On March 25, 2022, the court issued an order finding that the FEC’s failure to act on CLC’s allegations against Heritage Action was “contrary to law” and ordering the FEC to conform by taking action on CLC’s allegations within 30 days.

After over a month of continued inaction by the FEC, the court issued an order on May 3, 2022, declaring that the FEC had failed to comply with the law and acknowledging CLC’s right to sue Heritage Action directly over the alleged violations.

This is one of a series of cases in which private actors have stepped in to enforce federal campaign finance law against violators in the absence of FEC action.

The failure of the FEC to enforce campaign finance laws has resulted in an explosion in secret spending, and our politics are increasingly rigged in favor of special interests. By exercising its right to enforce campaign finance law against Heritage Action directly, CLC seeks to ensure that voters have the critical information they need to evaluate who is trying to influence their vote. 

Hayden is a legal fellow at CLC.
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