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Judge Clears Gopac Of Election Charges Gingrich Group Didn’t Need To Register At Early Date

Fri., March 1, 1996

A federal judge Thursday cleared GOPAC, the Republican political action committee once headed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., of violating federal election laws by working to develop Republican congressional candidates long before it officially registered as a PAC.

In a 32-page opinion, Senior U.S. District Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer called allegations by the Federal Election Commission nothing more than “circumstantial evidence and inferences.” He said that the FEC “conspicuously failed” to convince him that GOPAC should have registered with the agency as early as 1989 when it began urging voters to overthrow the Democratic Party’s control of Congress.

Gingrich, described by the FEC as a beneficiary of GOPAC’s early activities, said at a news conference that he was “gratified” by the judge’s decision, calling it “a complete vindication of the First Amendment and a flat rejection of misuse of the regulatory process for negative political purposes.”

“We’ve said all along we didn’t do anything wrong, there isn’t anything there,” he said. “And 8,000 pages and an awful lot of legal fees later, the judge said, ‘There is no case.’ It’s a wonderful feeling to finally have this clearly resolved in our favor and to be able to say once again to everyone, as we said all along, ‘We obey the rules and we do the right thing.’ “

Gingrich suggested the ruling would have a bearing on the House ethics committee, which is currently considering a complaint triggered by the FEC lawsuit that was filed by House Minority Whip David E. Bonior, D-Mich.

But Bonior disputed Gingrich Thursday. He said “six of the seven ethics counts filed against Mr. Gingrich have absolutely nothing to do with today’s GOPAC decision. There were not even issues before the court in the FEC case.”

In defining a PAC, Oberdorfer stuck to an earlier ruling he made that a political committee is a group that contributes $1,000 to “a particular candidate” in a federal election, not one that brokers in ideas or offers general support to one political party over another.

To do otherwise, the judge wrote, would result in a “troubling” expansion of federal oversight of elections and a “serious” infringement on the free speech rights of groups such as GOPAC.

Peter E. Derry, GOPAC’s lawyer, said the ruling is significant because it limits the federal government’s regulation of politics. “From our perspective, it’s great to win,” he said. “But I do think it does send a message about how far the federal government can go.”

Lisa B. Nelson, GOPAC’s executive director, blasted the FEC for its “frivolous and transparent attacks. … We hope that Judge Oberdorfer’s decision to uphold the First Amendment to the Constitution will discourage further frivolous and politically motivated assaults on innocent organizations.”

FEC spokesman Ron Harris said, “Obviously, we are disappointed. We felt we presented a meticulous, persuasive case.” He said FEC lawyers are reviewing the decision, and the commission will decide whether to appeal.

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