GOP challenges anti-Bush ads
Kerry campaign calls complaint against groups 'frivolous'
The GOP seeks to stop ads such as this one from MoveOn.org, which ends with the tag line, "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion deficit?"
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Republican National Committee has launched a wide-ranging legal assault on more than two dozen political groups working to defeat President Bush, with hopes of moving the case to federal court.
The committee said the groups are part of an "unprecedented criminal enterprise" to circumvent federal campaign laws and pour illegal "soft money" contributions into the 2004 race.
In a complaint filed Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission, the Republican committee also charged that the groups are illegally coordinating their advertising attacking Bush with the campaign of the Democratic presumptive nominee, U.S. Sen. John Kerry.
In response to the GOP move, Kerry campaign senior adviser Michael Meehan issued a statement saying, "Bush and the Republicans have taken March Madness and April foolishness to new levels. This frivolous complaint is not worth the paper it is written on.
"John Kerry and his campaign have nothing to do with these ads or the groups that run them."
The organizations in question, including MoveOn.org, the Media Fund, America Coming Together and America Votes, are the so-called 527 groups, named for a section of the tax code regulating their activities
In a tactical twist, the Republican group asked the FEC to quickly consider its complaint, then dismiss it -- so the committee can move the dispute into federal court.
The reason? The FEC's process for handling such complaints makes it unlikely it would be resolved before the November election. In federal court, the GOP committee could ask a judge to stop the activities of the groups immediately.
The Kerry campaign accused Republicans of championing "shadow groups," including one during the 2000 race for the presidential nomination that attacked Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. Now, Kerry adviser Meehan said, the party is filing suit against these same types of groups.
The Kerry campaign is named as a respondent in the complaint, along with the anti-Bush groups, their leaders and some of their large donors, including billionaire financier George Soros and Hollywood producer Steven Bing.
"These 527 groups, in conjunction with their representatives and their leadership, are conspiring together to violate the law, and conspiring together to raise this illegal soft money, and conspiring with a message and a coordination effort," said Jill Holtzman Vogel, chief counsel of the Republican committee.
Marc Racicot, chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign, conceded the request was unprecedented, but he said it was warranted under the circumstances.
"We are confident that they will consider this unique request we made and put an end to this abuse of the law and put an end to this violation of the law," Racicot said.
The Republican complaint says that the 527 groups are violating the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act by paying for anti-Bush ads and other political activities with unlimited contributions raised from wealthy donors, unions and liberal interest groups -- so-called soft money that political parties can no longer raise.
The complaint called the effort an "illegal Democratic soft-money slush fund scheme."
It also asserted that some of the 28 groups involved in the effort have not registered as federal political committees, which is required for organizations that seek to influence the outcome of a federal election.
Such committees can accept only "hard money" contributions, which are limited and regulated.
Wednesday's complaint was the latest round in months of partisan sparring over whether 527 groups working to defeat Bush can use soft money.
Leaders of the groups involved have repeatedly insisted they are well within the law, accusing the GOP and the Bush campaign of trying to stifle dissent.
Republicans, who hold a substantial advantage over Democrats in their ability to raise hard money, complain that the groups are using soft money to close the gap and help Kerry compete against Bush's larger war chest.
Leaders of the effort openly admit this intention -- but they insist it is perfectly legal.
The 2002 campaign finance reform law, more commonly known as the McCain-Feingold act, sought to limit the impact in political campaigns of soft money, which both parties were pouring into largely negative ad campaigns. Kerry supported the measure.
In February, the FEC issued a ruling saying a communication that "promotes, supports, attacks or opposes" a federal candidate falls under the hard money rules.
The Republican committee said that decision clearly puts the activities of the 527 groups against Bush out of bounds; the groups disagree, saying what they're doing is consistent with the FEC's ruling.
The committee also said the 527 groups, which are supposed to be independent, are coordinating their efforts with the Kerry campaign and Democratic Party, which is not allowed.
The complaint says the basis for this charge is that some leaders of the anti-Bush effort have ties to the Kerry campaign and Democrats.
They include Kerry's former campaign manager, Jim Jordan; Harold Ickes, a member of the Democratic National Committee's executive committee; and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who will chair this summer's Democratic National Convention at which Kerry will be nominated.
The Kerry campaign earlier said that it no longer has any involvement with Jordan, who was ousted in November when the senator shook up his staff.
The GOP committee also included in its complaint an analysis of ad spending in early March, when the Bush campaign began advertising in 80 markets.
Kerry responded with ads in 39 markets, and MoveOn.org and the Media Fund joined the senator in advertising in 38 of the same markets.
But of the 41 markets in which Bush was advertising and Kerry wasn't, MoveOn.org and the Media Fund put up ads in only 15, according to the Republican committee.
"Wherever one went, the others were sure to go in an effort to use soft dollars to counter a hard dollar Bush-Cheney '04 buy," the complaint said.
But the Kerry campaign said the the committee's move was not based on fear, not fairness.
"The same Republicans who rail against frivolous lawsuits are happy to have their lawyers fire away when their candidate drops in polls," said Meehan in his statement. "The president's job approval rating is in the 40s, and Republicans are launching their lawyers to try and save their campaign."