Chicago Sun-Times ignored problems with Wash. Post's reporting on Obama's Hopefund

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

In a December 3 article, Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief Lynn Sweet and reporter Jennifer Hunter asserted that recent reports by Congressional Quarterly and The Washington Post "suggested" that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) "walked up to -- and may have crossed -- a legal line" regarding donations his Hopefund political action committee sent to Democratic candidates "in the early voting states Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as to other Democrats." However, in reporting that Post staff writer John Solomon's November 30 article "suggested" Obama crossed "a legal line," Sweet and Hunter did not note a subsequent reported assertion by Federal Election Commission chief counsel Lawrence Noble, who was quoted in the article questioning the legality of Hopefund's contributions and who later claimed that Solomon quoted him "out-of-context," adding: "The facts as played out in the Washington Post piece are not exactly what I was told. ... I was assuming there was more."

As Media Matters for America documented, Solomon also wrote that Hopefund "distributed more than $180,000 in donations to political groups and candidates in the early presidential voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and more than $150,000 to federal candidates in other states with primary dates through mid-February. The donations accounted for nearly three-quarters of the money the PAC has given out since this summer." Solomon did not note, however, that most states will hold their Democratic presidential primaries or caucuses on or before February 12 and these states, according to the 2006 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, comprise almost two-thirds of the U.S. population.

Sweet and Hunter wrote in their December 3 Sun-Times article:

One of the main themes of the Obama campaign is his refusal to take money from federal lobbyists and PACs for his presidential war chest.

The dispute was triggered by the Nov. 15 filing of the latest HOPEFUND report, which revealed the committee -- which has accepted contributions from federal lobbyists and PACs -- made donations to Democrats in the early voting states Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as to other Democrats.

Such PACs are not supposed to bankroll presidential bids. Stories in Congressional Quarterly and the Washington Post suggested Obama walked up to -- and may have crossed -- a legal line. HOPEFUND and Clinton's HILLPAC were used to pay for some early White House testing-of-the-water expenses.

Solomon's November 30 Post article quoted Noble questioning the legality of Hopefund's donations, but as Media Matters noted, Politico senior political writer Ben Smith wrote in a November 30 blog entry that Noble said he was quoted "out of context" in Solomon's article.

Solomon wrote:

Campaign law experts, however, said they were less certain. They noted that the 2003 rules state that any leadership PAC expenditure coordinated with the politician's campaign should be treated as "in-kind contributions" subject to a limit of $5,000. The rules define a coordinated expense as any made in "cooperation or concert with or at the request or suggestion" of a campaign.

"I think this is something the commission should look at. If the money was, in fact, used to help the campaign, was requested by the campaign and coordinated with the campaign, then it could be considered an in-kind contribution," Lawrence Noble, the FEC's retired chief counsel, said.

Former FEC chairman Scott E. Thomas, a Democrat who served on the commission when the 2003 rule was approved, said the FEC at the time was focused more on how to keep PACs from subsidizing presidential campaigns by picking up the costs of polling, salary and other goods and services.

"He is clearly pushing the envelope, no doubt," Thomas said. "I would clearly recommend the commission take another look at this to see if there is some reasonable line that can be drawn so presidential campaigns aren't directing donations from the PAC a few months before the primaries."

In his November 30 blog entry, Smith wrote:

Lawrence Noble, quoted in the Washington Post as sharply critical of Obama's practice, says his quote was "out of context."

"The facts as played out in the Washington Post piece are not exactly what I was told," he said. "I was assuming there was more."

From the story:

"I think this is something the commission should look at. If the money was, in fact, used to help the campaign, was requested by the campaign and coordinated with the campaign, then it could be considered an in-kind contribution," Lawrence Noble, the FEC's retired chief counsel, said.

However, he said the level of coordination discussed in the story -- advice from Hildebrand and lawyer Bob Bauer -- doesn't rise to the level he had thought he was discussing with that quote, given that the FEC has established a "legal fiction" that leadership PACs like Hope Fund aren't affiliates of the campaign, but do serve the interests of the candidate.

That doesn't mean that the practice couldn't raise questions in ways that haven't been ruled out by the reporting here.

"I don't see any allegation that the campaign had a whole strategy here, that they were solely for the purpose of getting endorsements," Noble said.

But he said it was "generally understood" that one reason for a candidate to contribute to another politician through a leadership PAC "is who will be helpful to him or her."

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Chicago Sun-Times
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Barack Obama, 2008 Elections
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