WASHINGTON — In a complaint to be filed today with the Federal Election Commission, the Bush campaign and the GOP will charge that Sen. John F. Kerry is benefiting from "the largest illegal infusion of soft money from wealthy individuals, unions, corporations and other special interests" since Watergate.
The GOP alleged Wednesday that Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was part of an "unprecedented illegal conspiracy" to coordinate ads with well-funded liberal groups in violation of campaign finance laws -- a claim Kerry's campaign denied.
At issue is the role of several well-funded liberal groups whose stated goal is to raise $300 million to help oust President Bush in November. Known as 527s because of the tax code that governs them, organizations such as the Media Fund and MoveOn.org have been spending millions of dollars on anti-Bush TV ads in key battleground states.
In an unusual move, the Bush campaign's national counsel, Ben Ginsberg, will ask the FEC to immediately dismiss the complaint without hearing its merits, so Republicans can then seek relief in federal court.
The Kerry campaign called the complaint frivolous. "John Kerry and his campaign have nothing to do with these ads or the groups that run them," said Michael Meehan, Kerry's senior campaign advisor.
FEC commissioners say they are banned from speaking about enforcement actions, so it is unclear what the panel will do. The FEC usually takes at least several months to decide complaints, which Republicans contend is too long to have any meaningful effect on this year's presidential election.
The FEC is already in the middle of a lengthy process to impose new rules that may affect how the 527s raise and spend their money.
The complaint names six 527s -- the Media Fund, America Coming Together, America Votes, Voices for Working Families, MoveOn.org and Partnership for America's Families, as well as some of their wealthy donors. Among the donors are philanthropist George Soros, who has contributed $5 million; Hollywood producer Steven Bing, who has given $2 million; and Cleveland insurance billionaire Peter Lewis, who has donated $3 million.
Campaign finance reform laws have banned such large donations, which are known as soft money, to political parties. But the 527s are not governed by the same restrictions; the GOP says they should be. In their complaint, Republicans contend that because the 527s appear to be working with the Kerry campaign, the donations to them are tantamount to illegal soft money contributions to Kerry.
The Bush campaign has a $108-million cash advantage over Kerry in collecting so-called hard dollars, according to the latest financial disclosures. But Republicans worry that the influx of advertising money from the 527s may close that gap in a hurry.
From March 3 through Saturday, the Media Fund spent an estimated $7.3 million and MoveOn.org an additional $3 million on TV ads attacking Bush, according to TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, an independent monitor based in Virginia. Its figures are derived from analysis of ads on broadcast television in 100 major markets and on several national cable outlets.
Kerry, during that same period, spent about $3 million, according to the ad monitor. That brought the anti-Bush spending to within range of the Bush campaign, which spent an estimated $16.9 million.
The spending patterns show the high stakes involved in the FEC dispute. "Simply put, the Kerry campaign and the Democratic Party have been unable to fundraise to a level of hard dollars that they think is necessary for their campaign efforts," the complaint states. "Instead, they have chosen to rely on an illegal conspiracy of donors and shadowy groups to defeat President Bush."
"These are vintage Republican intimidation tactics," said Sarah Leonard, a spokeswoman for America Coming Together, the Media Fund and America Votes. "As usual, this has nothing to do with the law, this has nothing to do with the facts, and everything to do with political desperation."
Wes Boyd, president of the MoveOn.org Voter Fund, said the complaint was without merit. "We do not coordinate with the Kerry campaign. These charges are baseless and irresponsible," he said.
Ginsberg contends that the groups are illegally coordinating with Kerry because some of the people working with the 527s have links to the Democratic National Committee or the candidate's campaign.
Among those he mentions: Harold Ickes, who runs the Media Fund, also serves on the DNC's executive committee; Jim Jordan, who also works at the Media Fund, was Kerry's campaign manager until November; Minyon Moore, a member of America Coming Together's executive committee, is also a Kerry campaign consultant; and Bill Richardson, an officer in Voices for Working Families, is chairman of the Democratic National Convention.