Federal Election Commissioner Says Shays-Meehan Privacy Concerns Justified

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - At least one member of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) acknowledges that public disclosure requirements under the Shays-Meehan campaign finance bill passed by the House Thursday could lead to retaliation against people who give money to issue advocacy groups.

As CNSNews.com previously reported, members of some such groups have expressed anxiety about having their names published in FEC contribution reports, fearing retaliation from employers, merchants, and even family members.

"Disclosure is very troubling for somebody who's vulnerable to an employer, or contract grantor, or government agency that singles out people for retaliation because they got themselves on a 'politically incorrect' list," warned Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America (GOA).

"Once that person is known to be 'politically incorrect,' by whoever's definition, they can be targeted," Pratt said.

The applicable provision of the Shays-Meehan bill would require an advocacy group to disclose donations by any individual totaling more than $200 during any election cycle if any of the money was used to purchase advertising that mentioned a federal candidate by name.

Chuck Levin, a member of the board of AARP, agrees that it would be wrong for anyone to feel intimidated about giving to a group they support.

"If I have a point of view on something and I'm willing to put some money into it, within reasonable limits," Levin told CNSNews.com, "then it seems to me that that's my issue and I'm entitled to do it without fear of retribution."

But Levin questions the need to fear having one's name on an FEC contribution report.

"I think that's an over-reaction, frankly," he said. "There's probably a list of who knows how many hundreds of people, the likelihood of some employer doing that, sitting down and going over that list is almost zero."

That was the case, for most of the FEC's history.

"When you had to go in and look at them on paper that was true," according to Federal Election Commissioner Darryl Wold. "And the disclosure process was limited to its intended purpose, which was to find out a candidate's sources of support."

Wold says the advent of the Internet and the ability to file FEC reports electronically has changed that forever.

"Now you can flip it around and determine who an individual has been contributing to," he noted.

In fact, just three clicks of a computer mouse into the FEC website yields the link to conduct a search for contributions by donor name.

CNSNews.com conducted name searches for prominent Republican political consultant Mary Matalin and Democratic consultant James Carville, who are married to each other. Records of Matalin's $3,450 in contributions during the 2000 election cycle were retrieved in less than a second. So was Carville's 2000 contribution record of $5,000. Both records listed the employer of the donor and their home zip code, along with the final recipients of their contributions.

Wold says the risks for misuse of the data are many.

"There's a potential for use of that, say, by an employer who wants to get a political profile on a job applicant, a parent who wants to get a political profile of his or her child's teachers," he cautioned. "It could be used anytime you want to find out the political preferences of an individual measured by how much money they have contributed."

The expanded reporting requirements under Shays-Meehan, Wold adds, would only increase the potential for abuse.

"When you add together the increased number of databases under various state reporting regimes, and now contributors to [issue advocacy groups], it's going to be possible for somebody to develop a political profile of any individual who makes a significant number of contributions to candidates and causes," he concluded. "I think the privacy interests that people have are of great concern and this would exacerbate those concerns."E-mail a news tip to Jeff Johnson.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.