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FEC v. NATIONAL RIGHT TO WORK COMM.

February 15, 1996

FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, Plaintiff,
v.
NATIONAL RIGHT TO WORK COMMITTEE, INC., Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JACKSON

 The Federal Election Commission ("FEC" or "Commission") brings this action to assess civil penalties, and for declaratory and injunctive relief, against the National Right to Work Committee, Inc. ("NRTWC") for its alleged violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act ("FECA" or the "Act"), 2 U.S.C. §§ 431 et seq., arising, ironically, from the NRTWC's own efforts to expose violations of FECA by its political adversaries. The case is presently before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment on multiple grounds, including the NRTWC's affirmative defense of limitations. *fn1" For the reasons given, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment will be denied, and the defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment granted on the ground that this action is time-barred in its entirety. The complaint will therefore be dismissed with prejudice.

 I.

 Plaintiff Federal Election Commission is an independent federal agency with exclusive jurisdiction for the administration and civil enforcement of FECA. See generally 2 U.S.C. §§ 437c(b)(1), 437d(a) and 437(g). In pertinent part, the Act places restrictions on contributions to candidates for office in federal elections and requires that candidates observe detailed recordkeeping and reporting requirements for all contributions received. At issue in this case is FECA's prohibition of contributions or expenditures by corporations or labor organizations "in connection with" any federal election. 2 U.S.C. § 441b(a).

 Defendant NRTWC is a nonprofit corporation that espouses the principle of "voluntary unionism," i.e. an employee's right to refuse to join or support a labor union, or, in other words, to work in an "open shop" workplace. Frequently embroiled in conflicts with organized labor, NRTWC asserts that it has an enduring interest in preventing unlawful conduct by labor unions, including their use of compulsory union dues for political purposes.

 Beginning in 1983, the NRTWC suspected that several major labor unions, including the AFL-CIO and the National Education Association ("NEA"), intended to use union financial resources to support the primary campaigns of their preferred candidates. In February, 1984, the NRTWC devised a plan to investigate political spending by organized labor in the 1984 federal elections by planting undercover private detectives within organized labor's political apparatus throughout the United States, focusing primarily on AFL-CIO and NEA spending in support of the Mondale presidential campaign.

 During the next four months, the NRTWC spent approximately $ 100,000 to hire detectives from several private agencies who posed as "volunteer" campaign workers and infiltrated the Mondale for President Committee and various labor organizations in several states. As instructed, the detectives observed possible violations of the FECA and gathered evidence for NRTWC's use in filing administrative complaints with the FEC. But, while conducting their covert investigation, the detectives participated in the usual "volunteer" activities, such as distributing literature and making phone calls to solicit and encourage support for Walter Mondale. *fn2"

 In ironic turnabout, in October of 1984, the NEA filed its own administrative complaint with the FEC against the NRTWC alleging violations of the same political contributions laws that NRTWC's investigations had sought to expose on its part. The NEA's complaint contended that the "volunteer" services rendered by NRTWC's detectives for the Mondale campaign while in their undercover roles constituted illegal contributions or expenditures "in connection with" a federal election in violation of § 441b of the Act. The FEC reviewed the complaint and the NRTWC's response, and on January 8, 1985, a quorum of Commissioners concluded that there was "reason to believe" that the NRTWC had, indeed, violated the Act. A formal investigation ensued.

 Not until May 23, 1989, however, did the Commission make a "probable cause" finding that the detectives' "volunteer" work performed while conducting their political espionage was unlawful. Then, in due course and in accordance with the statute, the usual informal "conferences, conciliation, and persuasion" followed. *fn3" No accommodation having been reached, the FEC formally voted to authorize the initiation of this lawsuit on December 12, 1989. The action, eventually filed on March 13, 1990, thus commenced nearly six years after, and three national elections removed from, the conduct giving rise to it. The complaint prays for the imposition of civil penalties, a declaration that NRTWC's actions were in violation of 2 U.S.C. § 441b(a), and a permanent injunction commanding the NRTWC to refrain from similar vigilantism in the future.

 II.

 FECA does not contain an integral statute of limitations for civil actions, from which circumstance the FEC contends that Congress intended that it be without any statutory time constraints in matters of civil enforcement. In providing for "conference, conciliation, and persuasion" as informal administrative prerequisites to litigation, the Commission says, FECA is analogous to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, comparable provisions of which were held to exempt the EEOC from compliance with a one-year state statute of limitation in Occidental Life Ins. Co. v. EEOC, 432 U.S. 355, 53 L. Ed. 2d 402, 97 S. Ct. 2447 (1977). Time limitations are not conducive to successful diplomacy, so the argument goes.

 That reasoning has previously been rejected, however, by another judge of this district court in FEC v. National Republican Senatorial Committee ("NRSC"), 877 F. Supp. 15 (D.D.C. 1995) (Pratt, J.), with whom this Court agrees. The U.S. Code elsewhere contains a five-year omnibus federal statute of limitations expressly applicable to all governmental actions for the assessment of "civil penalties," as the FEC seeks here. See 28 U.S.C. § 2462. Five years should be ample time for consensual resolutions of grievances to be reached if they are achievable at all.

 Under § 2462, the time within which an action for enforcement must be commenced is measured from "the date when the claim first accrued." If it is to be held accountable in accordance with § 2462 for timely filings of actions it brings under FECA, the Commission argues, then its "claim" against NRTWC should be deemed to have "first accrued" when the Commission at long last made its "probable cause" finding. But adverting once again to FEC v. NRSC, supra, the only other reported case called to the Court's attention to have applied § 2462 to an enforcement action under FECA, the Court observes that Judge Pratt also held the period of limitations to have commenced to run when the alleged offense was committed, 877 F. Supp. at 18, as authority for which proposition he cited the case of 3 M Co. v. Browner, 305 U.S. App. D.C. 100, 17 F.3d 1453 (D.C. Cir. 1994). *fn4"

 In 3M Co., without employing qualifying language to suggest that the time of "first accrual" might vary depending upon the statute involved, the D.C. Circuit held that § 2462 requires that "an action, suit or proceeding [for a civil penalty] must be commenced within five years of the date of the violation giving rise to the penalty." 17 F.3d at 1462. As Judge Pratt stated in FEC v. NRSC, "the fundamental premise underlying the 3M Co. decision is that it is inappropriate for a government regulator to wield the threat of an open-ended penalty. This is particularly ...


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