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FEC attorneys urged finding against O'Donnell

Republican members of the Federal Election Commission voted to end a probe of former U.S. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, even though staff attorneys concluded there was reason to believe that the Delaware Republican and her campaign violated federal election laws, newly released records show.

FEC attorneys recommended in a March report that the commission find reason to believe that election laws had been broken by O'Donnell, her campaign committee and campaign treasurer, as well as the Tea Party Express and its treasurer. The FEC attorneys found grounds that the parties had made, accepted and failed to report excessive in-kind contributions in the form of coordinated expenditures.

But agency records released this week show that the commission deadlocked 3-3 along partisan lines last month on whether to accept the recommendations of the FEC's office of general counsel, ending the investigation into a complaint filed by the Delaware Republican Party before O'Donnell captured the party's Senate nomination.

Despite the FEC staff recommendations, O'Donnell's campaign attorney Cleta Mitchell stood by her earlier assertion that the commission was forced to drop the complaint because there was no evidence of any wrongdoing or violation.

"There were no facts to support a reason to believe finding, which is why three commissioners voted not to proceed," Mitchell wrote Wednesday in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

"The OGC has been allowed to conduct fishing expeditions for many years exceeding the authority in the law to do so," Mitchell added. "If there are no facts alleged in the complaint that constitute coordination (or other violation) the case should not, under the law, proceed to investigation stage."

O'Donnell, a conservative activist and tea party favorite who won last year's GOP Senate primary in Delaware, announced the FEC's dismissal of the complaint earlier this month in a post on her Twitter account.

"It was a frivolous, politically motivated move in the first place!" she wrote.

The state GOP filed its complaint on Sept. 9, 2010, just days before O'Donnell stunned the political establishment by upsetting nine-term U.S. Rep. Mike Castle, a former two-term governor, in the primary. She went on to lose a lopsided decision to Democrat Chris Coons in the general election.

The GOP had alleged in its complaint that O'Donnell and the Tea Party Express were violating FEC rules that restrict coordination between candidates and outside political organizations.

The complaint alleged that the California-based Tea Party Express had solicited donors to contribute to O'Donnell, and that O'Donnell and the group worked jointly on advertising, breaching federal rules.

Among other things, the complaint pointed to radio advertisements and fundraising efforts by the Tea Party Express in support of O'Donnell, including a radio-thon, and appearances by O'Donnell at two Tea Party events in early September, just days before the primary.

The FEC inquiry into the Delaware GOP's complaint is separate from a federal criminal investigation into whether O'Donnell illegally used campaign money for personal use. That investigation was prompted by a complaint filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group. O'Donnell has denied misspending any money and has said the accusations are politically motivated and stoked by disgruntled former campaign workers.

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