Published May 13, 2011
After testifying on Capitol Hill for migrant farm workers and co-hosting a rally on the National Mall last year, comedian Stephen Colbert made a grand return to Washington Friday -- this time to draw attention to his effort to form a political action committee designed to "affect" the 2012 presidential election on behalf of his viewers.
"The Colbert Report" host, who mockingly poses as a conservative, is seeking a media exemption for the would-be PAC from the Federal Election Commission so he can talk about fundraising on air without it being considered an "illegal in-kind donation" by Comedy Central's parent company, Viacom.
"I want to form Colbert Super PAC for all the PAC-less Americans so they can have a voice in the form of my voice," Colbert told a crowd gathered outside the Federal Election Commission offices.
"I am sick and tired of the old boy Democratic and Republican network toadying to corporate interests," Colbert said. "What about us? Where's our money. We're willing to toady."
In a letter dated April 12 and read on the air by Colbert, a Viacom lawyer wrote, "At this point, Stephen has used enough of Viacom's resources in promoting the as-yet-unformed PAC ... that the FEC would likely see as an in-kind donation from Viacom in the event the PAC is ever actually formed. That means you can't form it."
For weeks, Colbert, whose mission has forced politically savvy comedy fans to take note of the nation's campaign finance laws, has been trying to find ways around this roadblock.
Initially, he intended to upgrade the PAC to an "independent expenditure-only committee," otherwise known as a "super PAC," vehicles that were created last summer in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling that allow unlimited political spending by corporations and labor.
His private lawyer, Trevor Potter, former chairman of the FEC who served as general counsel for Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, told Colbert during an appearance on his show last month that to upgrade the PAC, all he had to do was send a cover letter to the FEC saying it would be a super PAC.
But that didn't satisfy Viacom lawyers who wrote Colbert another letter saying discussions of his SuperPAC on air still might violate campaign finance rules.
That led Colbert to ask Potter how "do the guys on Fox get away with it?", a reference to on-air Fox News contributors like Karl Rove who discuss their PACs.
"They are covered by the famous media exemption," Potter told Colbert during another appearance on his show Thursday night. "The media exemption says that if you're a broadcast station, you're not owned by a candidate or a party and you're reporting the news in your normal way of going about business, then you're exempt, you're not making a corporate contribution when you talk about candidates and politics."
The FEC has up to 60 days to consider and vote on the request. If the agency grants the exemption, Potter told Colbert he would be "bulletproof."
"Really?" Colbert said. "Bin Laden should have applied for one of these."
During the same show, Colbert announced his pilgrimage and has been encouraging his fans to join him on Twitter ever since in a series of messages.
"I'm going to be at the FEC in DC today at 4. Don't tell anyone, I want it to be a surprise," he said in one tweet.
"Meet me today at the FEC in DC at 4. Wear a carnation so I know it's you," he said in another.
"Help me fight the power at the FEC at 4 today. It's across the street from the FBI, so as a bonus, your name goes on the 'no fly' list!" another tweet reads.
Viacom couldn't be reached for comment. The FEC says it's ready for a Colbert crush.
"We expect that he will be coming with his lawyer to file an advisory opinion request and it will be treated like any other such request," FEC spokeswoman Judith Ingram told FoxNews.com.
Ingram noted that there have been candidates who have brought supporters to the FEC building before and held press conferences after dropping off registration papers. She also said that with a Hard Rock Café nearby, the area is typically filled with crowds of students and tourists.
Not everyone is rooting for Colbert. The Sunlight Foundation, which opposed undisclosed political spending, wants Colbert to take a stand for transparency.
"Do we really need another shadowy organization out there influencing our politicians?" the group wrote in a blog posted to its website. "We don't think so, and we bet you agree with us. We believe that Colbert, and any other Super PAC, must disclose their donors. Our democracy depends on it."
Colbert is no stranger to Washington. In October, he and Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show," held dueling rallies -- Colbert called his event "March to Keep Fear Alive." The two eventually were combined into one called the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" that drew tens of thousands of people.
In September, Colbert drew massive publicity to a Capitol Hill hearing on a proposal to give illegal immigrant farm workers a pathway to legal status. Colbert delivered a monologue full of zingers and one-liners for his testimony that some lawmakers didn't find funny.