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JUDICIAL WATCH, INC. v. FEC

July 2, 1998

JUDICIAL WATCH, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: SPORKIN

MEMORANDUM OPINION

 This matter is before the Court on (1) Defendant's motion to dismiss, or, in the alternative, for summary judgment; and (2) Defendant's motion for sanctions under Rule 11. Plaintiff, Judicial Watch, Inc., is a non-profit legal watch-dog organization. Judicial Watch describes its purpose as obtaining and publishing information that exposes government activities that are contrary to law. On August 26, 1996, approximately ten weeks before the 1996 elections, Judicial Watch brought an administrative complaint before the Defendant Federal Election Commission ("FEC"). The complaint was entitled "Complaint for Violation of Campaign Finance Laws and Regulations." It named as respondents the Clinton Administration, the White House, the Democratic National Committee ("DNC"), the Department of Commerce, and President Clinton. The complaint alleged:

 
Respondents have sold government services and specifically seats and assistance on [Department of Commerce] foreign trade missions, for large campaign contributions, frequently in denominations of $ 100,000, to the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton/Gore Reelection Campaign.

 Inexplicably, the FEC waited over a year and a half before determining whether to investigate Plaintiff's allegations. On December 15, 1997, the FEC declined to take any action on Plaintiff's complaint, stating: "In light of the information on the record, the relative significance of the case, and the amount of time that had elapsed, the Commission determined to close its file in this matter on December 15, 1997." Letter to Mr. Klyaman from the Federal Election Commission (December 15, 1997).

 Plaintiff brought this action under 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(8)(A) (1998) in District Court challenging the FEC's decision to take no action on its complaint. Judicial Watch seeks a declaratory judgment that the FEC's dismissal of its administrative complaint was contrary to law. Additionally, Judicial Watch seeks an order that the FEC conform its conduct to the law.

 I. Standing

 The FEC moves the Court to dismiss this case because it claims that the Plaintiff lacks standing to bring this lawsuit. The FEC claims that Common Cause v. Federal Election Commission, 323 U.S. App. D.C. 359, 108 F.3d 413 (D.C. Cir. 1997) is dispositive on the lack of Plaintiff's standing and that the Plaintiff should be subjected to sanctions for bringing this action.

 Under the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 ("FECA"), any person who believes that a violation of the Act occurred may file a complaint with the FEC. See 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(1) (1998). After reviewing the complaint, the Commission may vote on whether there is "reason to believe" that a violation of the FECA has occurred. See 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(2) (1998). If at least four members of the Commission find that there is reason to believe that there has been a violation, then the Commission "shall make an investigation of [the] alleged violation." 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(3). If the Commission determines that no violations occurred or decides to dismiss the administrative complaint for some other reason, the complainant can seek judicial review of that determination in District Court under 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(8)(A). "Section 437g(a)(8)(A) does not confer standing; it confers a right to sue upon parties who otherwise already have standing. As in Lujan, absent the ability to demonstrate a 'discrete injury' flowing from the alleged violation of FECA, [a plaintiff] cannot establish standing merely by asserting that the FEC failed to process its complaint in accordance of law." Common Cause, 108 F.3d at 418.

 To establish standing under Article III, Plaintiff must establish: (1) that it suffered an "injury in fact"; (2) that "there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of"; and (3) that "it must be likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision." Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61, 119 L. Ed. 2d 351, 112 S. Ct. 2130 (1992). An organization, such as Judicial Watch, may sue on behalf of its members where: (a) the members would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right; (b) the interests the organization seeks to protect are germane to the organization's purpose; and (c) neither the claims asserted nor the relief requested requires the participation of individual members in the lawsuit. Hunt v. Washington State Apple Advertising Comm'n, 432 U.S. 333, 343, 97 S. Ct. 2434, 53 L. Ed. 2d 383 (1977).

 The FEC claims that Plaintiff has failed to allege an injury. However, recently, in Federal Election Commission v. Akins, 118 S. Ct. 1777, 141 L. Ed. 2d 10 (1998), the Supreme Court held that an injury was created when a plaintiff "fails to obtain information that must be publicly disclosed pursuant to a statute" is sufficiently concrete to constitute an "injury in fact" for the purposes of standing. Id. at 1784. Affected voters have standing to sue the FEC for failure to obtain information that it is required to gather. Depriving voters of information that the sale of seats on the Commerce trade missions in exchange for contributions to the DNC and the 1996 Clinton/Gore Reelection campaign is important and useful to voters.

 The FEC also claims that the Plaintiff lacks standing because the Plaintiff has not specifically alleged in its administrative complaint that the Clinton/Gore Reelection Campaign or the DNC violated the FECA. FEC regulations provide that the complaint "should contain a clear and concise recitation of the facts which describe a violation of a statute or regulation over which the Commission has jurisdiction." 11 C.F.R. § 111.4(d)(3) (1998). The FEC asserts that the FECA concerns only reporting violations, not bribery, and that it does not have jurisdiction over quid pro quo violations. The FEC claims that the Plaintiff never alleged a failure to report information as part of its administrative complaint before the FEC. The FEC relies upon this Circuit's decision in Common Cause, which held that the Plaintiff had no standing to sue for illegal actions that did not involve the failure to disclose information as required by the FECA: "What Common Cause desires is for the Commission to 'get the bad guys,' rather than disclose information. Common Cause has no standing to sue for such relief." Common Cause, 108 F.3d at 418. In short, the FEC argues that the Plaintiff failed to state a theory under which its allegations of selling seats on foreign trade missions for campaign contributions would involve the failure to report information, and hence, be a violation the FECA.

 However, the Plaintiff is not required to supply the FEC with a legal theory under the FECA to pursue its allegations. At minimum, the FEC, as an agency acting in the public interest, should not interpret complaints narrowly. See Federal Election Commission v. Franklin, 718 F. Supp. 1272, 1278 (E.D. Va. 1989) ("While the complaint does not present a complete factual and legal account of a violation of the FECA by the unknown respondent, such an account is not required."). Indeed, the FEC ignored its own regulations, which state that

 
If a complaint does not comply with the requirements of 11 C.F.R. 111.4, the General Counsel shall so notify the complainant and any person(s) or entity(ies) identified therein as respondent(s) within the five (5) day period specified in 111 C.F.R. 111.5(a), that no action shall be taken on the basis of that complaint.

 11 C.F.R. § 111.5 (1998). The FEC did not notify the Plaintiff that the complaint was defective. Instead, the FEC waited a year and a half before dismissing it. It is only now that the FEC claims that it took no action on the ...


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