A federal court on Thursday ordered the Federal Election Commission to rule on pending complaints that allege the National Rifle Association used shell entities to illegally coordinate campaign spending with federal candidates, including with the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
In 2019, the Washington-based nonpartisan watchdog group Campaign Legal Center Action sued the FEC on behalf of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control advocacy group led by former Democratic Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, after the federal agency failed to act on multiple complaints that accused the gun rights group of perpetrating what plaintiffs called "an elaborate scheme ... to unlawfully coordinate with candidates it supports for federal office."
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Thursday ordered the FEC to take action on the complaints within 30 days.
In the 2019 suit, the plaintiffs alleged that the NRA used a "network of shell corporations" to circumvent contribution limits and coordinate approximately $35 million in ad spending with the campaigns of at least seven Republican candidates over the last three election cycles, "thereby making millions of dollars of illegal, unreported, and excessive in-kind contributions."
The complaint alleged that while the NRA deliberately circumvented FEC rules that prohibit vendor coordination between campaigns and outside groups, the federal agency responsible for oversight of election spending -- whose members frequently deadlock on matters along partisan lines -- had not taken any enforcement action.
"The failure of the FEC to enforce our campaign finance laws has resulted in an explosion of shady campaign spending," said Trevor Potter, the president of Campaign Legal Center Action CLC and a former FEC chairman. "The FEC had the chance to do the right thing by taking action against the NRA for this blatant spending coordination, but failed to do so."
"This is a baseless effort engineered by anti-gun groups who want to silence the voices of our members," NRA spokesperson Lars Dalseide told ABC News in a statement. "We welcome the FEC's review so we can move on from this frivolous distraction."
A spokesperson for the FEC declined to comment on the litigation.
FEC rules prohibit outside groups from making coordinated expenditures with campaigns, stipulating that candidate campaigns should not be "materially involved" in the production and placement of ads purchased by the super PAC arm or the politically active nonprofit arm of the NRA. Vendors that are shared by the NRA and federal campaigns are also prohibited from sharing information in support of each other.
"Over the last several years and across election cycles, the NRA has been brazenly flouting campaign finance law by illegally funneling money to candidates while claiming to remain independent," said David Pucino, senior staff attorney at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
"It is clear that the NRA will continue to violate the law until someone stops them," Pucino said. "Today's decision ordering the FEC to take action is a resounding win to keep dark money out of our politics."