Is Fred Thompson Skirting Election Law?

By Ed O'Keefe

Aug 20, 2007 1:26pm

A liberal activist today lodged a complaint (LINK HERE) with the Federal Election Commission against former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., contending that Thompson’s "testing the waters" committee has long since surpassed that designation and that he, for all intents and purposes, is a candidate for president. This is not without precedent. Previous pre-candidates who tried the "testing the waters" committee — including Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Rev. Pat Robertson, and Rev. Al Sharpton — invited FEC scrutiny. The rule is pretty simple. If you spend more than $5,000 on campaign activities, you’re a candidate, whether or not you’ve officially declared. The question is what constitutes "testing the waters" activity, and what constitutes "candidate" activity. In 2004 the conservative National and Legal Policy Center filed a complaint with the FEC (LINK HERE)  alleging Sharpton was using the "testing the waters" committee to run an "off-the-books campaign," not declaring his candidacy officially while clearly a candidate, thus avoiding disclosure rules.  The FEC investigated the matter, and arrived at a settlement with Sharpton. The FEC ruled that Robertson had violated the "testing the waters" rules in 1988, fining him $25,000.

The campaigns of some of Thompson’s potential GOP rivals have groused  — off the record — that Thompson is similarly skirting the law. 

Thompson was in Iowa over the weekend. Check him out HERE.

Thompson himself has been clear in interviews to NOT declare himself a candidate, telling CNN on August 17, "We are going to be getting in if we get in, and of course, we are in the testing the waters phase."

But how much is this once-staunch advocate of campaign finance reform truly "testing the waters"? In June Thompson signed a long-term lease on a Nashville location for his national campaign headquarters. He’s been to Iowa and New Hampshire, and headlined GOP dinners.

Moreover, when Thompson filed his disclosure form with the IRS, he revealed that $72,000 of  the $3.4 million raised  is to be used for the general election. Former FEC General Counsel, Larry Noble  told the Washington Post "I think it’s problematic. Clearly it’s a red flag." (LINK HERE)

The real issue here, for campaign finance reformer types?

Disclosure.

If Thompson waits until September 6 to formally declare his candidacy, he wouldn’t have to disclose any of the cash given to his campaign until January 31 — after many major contests are over, including the Iowa and Nevada Caucuses, and the New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan and Florida primaries.

Thompson’s campaign says that he’s complying with all rules and regulations, and Thompson has cast all questions about this in terms of him not doing things the way Washington, DC, insiders want them to be done.

What do you think?

– jpt

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