Afl-Cio v. Federal Election Com'n, No. CIV.A. 01-1522(GK).

CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
Writing for the CourtKessler
Citation177 F.Supp.2d 48
PartiesAMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR AND CONGRESS OF INDUSTRIAL ORGANIZATIONS and DNC Services Corporation Democratic National Committee, Plaintiffs, v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION Defendant.
Decision Date19 December 2001
Docket NumberNo. CIV.A. 01-1522(GK).
177 F.Supp.2d 48
AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR AND CONGRESS OF INDUSTRIAL ORGANIZATIONS and DNC Services Corporation Democratic National Committee, Plaintiffs,
v.
FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION Defendant.
No. CIV.A. 01-1522(GK).
United States District Court, District of Columbia.
December 19, 2001.

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COPYRIGHT MATERIAL OMITTED

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Michael B. Trister, Lichtman, Trister, Singer & Ross, Washington, DC, Laurence

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Edward Gold, American Federation of Labor Congress of Industrial Organizations, Washington, DC, for AFL-CIO.

Michael B. Trister, Lichtman, Trister, Singer & Ross, Washington, DC, Laurence Edward Gold, American Federation of Labor Congress of Industrial Organizations, Washington, DC, Joseph Eric Sandler, Sandler & Reiff, P.C., Washington, DC, for DNC Services Corp. Democratic National Committee.

Stephen E. Hershkowitz, Colleen Tove Sealander, Leigh Gipson Hildebrand, Washington, DC, for Federal Election Commission.

Alan Page Dye, Webster, Chamberlain & Bean, Washington, DC, for The James Madison Center for Free Speech.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

KESSLER, District Judge.


Plaintiffs are the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations ("AFL-CIO") and DNC Services Corporation/Democratic National Committee (collectively, "DNC"). They bring this action to prevent disclosure by Defendant, the Federal Election Commission ("FEC" or "Commission"), of approximately 6,000 pages of documents obtained during the FEC's investigation of Plaintiffs.

As a preliminary matter, this Court observes that this is a case in which, to put it colloquially, "what is sauce for the Democratic goose" will also be "sauce for the Republican gander." The legal issue raised in this case is critical to all players in the political arena because it concerns the FEC's statutory authority to disclose to the public—and to political opponents— extraordinarily sensitive political information that would not be available in the absence of an investigation of complaints filed with the FEC. That information includes plans and strategies for winning elections, materials detailing political and associational activities, and personal information concerning hundreds of employees, volunteers and members of the Plaintiff organizations.

The matter is now before the Court on the Motions for Summary Judgment of Plaintiffs [# 15] and Defendant [# 29]. Upon consideration of the motions, oppositions, replies, the Motions Hearing held in this matter on November 1, 2001, the amicus curiae brief of the James Madison Center for Free Speech,1 and the entire record herein, and for the reasons discussed below, the Court concludes that the FEC's decision to disclose the documents obtained during its investigation of Plaintiffs is arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law. The confidentiality mandate of the Federal Election Campaign Act ("FECA" or "Act"), 2 U.S.C. §§ 431-55, and the Commission's own implementing regulations, clearly prohibit the FEC from disclosing the more than 6,000 pages of documents in issue. Accordingly, the Court grants Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment and denies Defendant's Motion.2

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs AFL-CIO and DNC bring this action under the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A), to enjoin Defendant FEC from disclosing

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thousands of documents pertaining to its investigation of Plaintiffs. The FEC investigated Plaintiffs pursuant to complaints alleging that their activities in connection with the 1996 election year violated the Federal Election Campaign Act. Plaintiffs maintain that disclosure of documents pertaining to that investigation would violate the confidentiality provision of FECA, namely 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(12)(A); the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a(e)(7); Exemptions 3 and 7(C) of the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C § 552(b)(3) and (7); and the First Amendment.

A. Overview of the FEC's Enforcement of FECA3

The FEC is an independent, federal agency charged with the exclusive jurisdiction to administer and enforce FECA. FECA permits any person to file an administrative complaint with the FEC alleging violation thereof. 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(1). Once a complaint is filed alleging violations of FECA, the FEC notifies any and all respondents4 and invites written responses. 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(1). The FEC then reviews the complaint and any responses filed thereto to determine whether there is "reason to believe" that a violation of FECA has occurred or is about to occur. 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(2). If the FEC determines that there is "reason to believe" that FECA has been or will be violated, it undertakes an "investigation" of the alleged violation. 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(2). After completion of an investigation, the Commission votes on whether there is "probable cause" to believe FECA has been violated. 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(3). If the Commission finds that there is no probable cause to believe that a violation of FECA has occurred, the investigation is closed and the case is dismissed. Complainants may challenge this dismissal in federal district court. 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(8)(A). If, on the other hand, the Commission concludes that there is probable cause to believe that FECA has been violated, it must first attempt conciliation, and failing that, may seek enforcement of FECA in federal district court. 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(6)(A).

B. The FEC's Investigation of Plaintiffs

Between December of 1995 and November of 1996, the FEC received eleven complaints alleging that Plaintiffs' activities in connection with the 1996 election year violated FECA. One complaint was filed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and the remaining ten were filed by the National Republican Congressional Committee and an independent political action committee chaired by Oliver L. North. Those complaints alleged that the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions had coordinated their federal campaign activities with the Democratic Party, the White House, and individual candidates.

On June 17, 1997, upon review of the eleven complaints and Plaintiffs' written responses thereto, the Commission found "reason to believe" that Plaintiffs had violated FECA by making illegal in-kind contributions.5 Thereafter, the Commission

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undertook a formal "investigation" of Plaintiffs. On July 11, 2000, after a three-year investigation, the Commission determined that there was no "probable cause" to believe that FECA had been violated and dismissed the complaints against Plaintiffs.6 Complainants did not appeal the FEC's dismissal.

C. The FEC's Disclosure Decision

On April 19, 2001, the FEC notified Plaintiffs that it intended to make publicly available a portion of the investigatory file pertaining to the complaints filed against Plaintiffs. In particular, the FEC informed Plaintiffs that it planned to release some 6,000 pages from the FEC's investigatory file, which totals 45,000 to 55,000 pages.7 The FEC planned to do so by transferring the following documents to microfiche and placing them in its Public Records Room: the eleven complaints filed with the Commission against Plaintiffs, including all attachments; Plaintiffs' responses to the complaints, including all supporting affidavits; all correspondence between Plaintiffs, their counsel and the FEC; motions submitted by parties to the FEC; answers to interrogatories and other discovery requests submitted to the FEC by respondents and witnesses; reports submitted to the FEC by General Counsel; and certifications of all actions taken by the Commission during its investigation.

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In three separate letters, of May 4, May 8, and May 11, 2001, Plaintiffs requested that these documents not be made public and explained that they believed disclosure would violate, inter alia, a confidentiality provision of FECA, namely § 437g(a)(12)(A). That provision states in full:

Any notification or investigation made under this section shall not be made public by the Commission or by any person without the written consent of the person receiving such notification or the person with respect to whom such investigation is made.

2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(12)(A). Plaintiffs further explained that the proposed disclosure would reveal confidential and highly sensitive information about how the Democratic Party carries out its political programs and about the AFL-CIO's political activities, strategies and tactics.8 Plaintiffs also argued that because the documents contain names and identifying information of hundreds of Plaintiffs' employees, officials, and volunteers, disclosure would violate FOIA Exemptions 4 and 7(C).9

The FEC denied Plaintiffs' requests on July 10, 2001, on the grounds that FECA and FOIA required disclosure of the investigative file.10 Plaintiffs filed this action seeking to enjoin disclosure of these documents. On July 17, 2001, the Court entered a preliminary injunction, which was consented to by all parties and which prohibited disclosure of the documents in question.11

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The parties have filed motions for summary judgment. Summary judgment will be granted when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with any affidavits or declarations, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

Furthermore, because this action is a challenge to the FEC's decision to disclose documents, it, like other agency actions, is reviewed under the arbitrary and capricious standard of the APA. See 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A).

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III. ANALYSIS

A. The FEC's Disclosure Decision Is Not Entitled to Chevron Deference Because The Plain Meaning of § 437g(a)(12)(A) Prohibits Disclosure.

Plaintiffs' principal argument is that § 437g(a)(12)(A) of FECA, which is the statute's confidentiality provision, unambiguously prohibits disclosure of the investigative file. As this case involves the...

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10 practice notes
  • McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, No. 02-582 CKK,KLH,RJL
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • 1 Mayo 2003
    ...investigation, the Commission concluded that no violation of FECA had occurred. See Rosenthal Decl. at 11; see also AFL-CIO v. FEC, 177 F.Supp.2d 48, 52-53 4. Restrictions on Non-Federal Funds As to BCRA's restrictions on non-federal funds, see generally supra Part II.D, I would find that: ......
  • Afl-Cio v. Federal Election Com'n, No. 02-5069.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • 20 Junio 2003
    ...the district court held that section 437g(a)(12)(A)'s plain language protects investigatory files from disclosure. AFL-CIO v. FEC, 177 F.Supp.2d 48, 55-59 (D.D.C.2001). The court also concluded that the Commission's position violated 11 C.F.R. § 111.21 and FOIA Exemption 7(C), 5 U.S.C. § 55......
  • Doe v. Fed. Election Comm'n, Civil Action No. 17–2694 (ABJ)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • 23 Marzo 2018
    ...court rejected the agency's longstanding interpretation of the confidentiality provision in subsection (a)(12)(A). See AFL–CIO v.FEC, 177 F.Supp.2d 48, 56 (D.D.C. 2001) (holding based on its plain language that the protections in subsection (a)(12)(A) do not lapse as soon as the FEC termina......
  • Tripp v. Department of Defense, No. Civ.A. 01-157.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • 30 Marzo 2002
    ...acting unlawfully by releasing information that Exemption 7(C) requires to be withheld. See AFL — CIO v. Federal Election Commission, 177 F.Supp.2d 48 (D.D.C.2001). The information about which plaintiff complains, however, exceeds the very limited scope of Exemption 7(C). Plaintiff's revers......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
8 cases
  • McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, No. 02-582 CKK,KLH,RJL
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • 1 Mayo 2003
    ...investigation, the Commission concluded that no violation of FECA had occurred. See Rosenthal Decl. at 11; see also AFL-CIO v. FEC, 177 F.Supp.2d 48, 52-53 4. Restrictions on Non-Federal Funds As to BCRA's restrictions on non-federal funds, see generally supra Part II.D, I would find that: ......
  • Afl-Cio v. Federal Election Com'n, No. 02-5069.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • 20 Junio 2003
    ...the district court held that section 437g(a)(12)(A)'s plain language protects investigatory files from disclosure. AFL-CIO v. FEC, 177 F.Supp.2d 48, 55-59 (D.D.C.2001). The court also concluded that the Commission's position violated 11 C.F.R. § 111.21 and FOIA Exemption 7(C), 5 U.S.C. § 55......
  • Doe v. Fed. Election Comm'n, Civil Action No. 17–2694 (ABJ)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • 23 Marzo 2018
    ...court rejected the agency's longstanding interpretation of the confidentiality provision in subsection (a)(12)(A). See AFL–CIO v.FEC, 177 F.Supp.2d 48, 56 (D.D.C. 2001) (holding based on its plain language that the protections in subsection (a)(12)(A) do not lapse as soon as the FEC termina......
  • Tripp v. Department of Defense, No. Civ.A. 01-157.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • 30 Marzo 2002
    ...acting unlawfully by releasing information that Exemption 7(C) requires to be withheld. See AFL — CIO v. Federal Election Commission, 177 F.Supp.2d 48 (D.D.C.2001). The information about which plaintiff complains, however, exceeds the very limited scope of Exemption 7(C). Plaintiff's revers......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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