WASHINGTON – Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and MoveOn.org Voter Fund, two outside groups that played key roles in the 2004 presidential election, reached an agreement with the Federal Election Commission to pay nearly $450,000 for various violations.
The two groups, along with the League of Conservation Voters, settled charges that they failed "to register and file disclosure reports as federal political committees and accepted contributions in violation of federal limits and source prohibitions," the FEC said in a statement Wednesday.
The commission approved the three settlements on a vote of 6-0.
The FEC's unanimous decision to approve the agreements goes to the heart of campaign tactics that reached full bloom in the 2004 presidential campaign. At issue was the emergence of nonprofit political groups, called 527 organizations based on the section of the Internal Revenue Service code that government their activities, that operated as independent campaigns attacking Kerry or Bush.
The group listed as Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth will pay $299,500. In the 2004 campaign, the group leveled unsubstantiated allegations about Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry's military record in Vietnam.
MoveOn.org will pay $150,000. The liberal organization challenged President Bush on various issues in the campaign.
The League of Conservation Voters will pay $180,000. The group ran anti-Bush ads on environmental issues.
The civil penalties were the first of this magnitude since the Supreme Court upheld most of the campaign finance law passed by Congress in 2002 that barred political parties from raising unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.
The FEC concluded that the three 527 organizations violated campaign finance laws because they expressly stated their desire to influence the presidential election in their fundraising, their public statements or their advertisements. Such activity, the FEC said, could only be conducted by political committee registered with the FEC that abide by contribution limits and public disclosure requirements.
Commission Chairman Michael Toner said the penalties send a "strong message" and set "important touchstones for the future."
"This will have significant implications for the 2008 presidential race," he said. "527 organizations are on clear notice about what their legal obligations are."
According to reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service this year, Swift Boat Veterans did not raise any money in 2006, but spent $320,000 on legal fees to the Washington firm of Patton Boggs. Bob Perry, the main financier for the Swift Boat ads, spent $9 million financing other organizations in the 2006 election.
MoveOn.org shut down its Voter Fund organization in 2004, and drove its campaign activity through its political action committee, which raised more than $27 million in the 2006 election cycle. MoveOn also operates a nonprofit organization, MoveOn.org Civic Action, that advocates positions on national issues.
"We welcome the FEC clamping down on pop-up 527s, set up just to influence elections and funded only by big money, since that would almost certainly put Swift Boat Veterans and similar groups out of business," said Wes Boyd, a co-founder of MoveOn.org.