FFRF complaint: Priest robocall broke federal law

It took three years, but a complaint by FFRF resulted in action by the Federal Election Commission, which has deemed a priest’s robocall a violation of federal law.

In November 2008, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter to the FEC on behalf of a Colorado resident about a robocall message made by Fr. Bill Carmody, who has a Colorado Springs parish and was working with Informed Catholic Citizens (ICC).

Carmody exhorted citizens to vote “pro-life” for John McCain. Other calls were made targeting Democratic Senate candidate Mark Udall.

The call by Carmody included this exhortation:

”Regardless of the spinning that some politicians have done, the Catholic Church’s opposition to the evil of abortion has always been the same and is crystal clear. Why is it important in the election? John McCain has a record of supporting life. But in the words of Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, Barack Obama is the most committed abortion rights presidential candidate of either major party in 35 years.”

Markert’s letter called attention to ICC engaging in illegal advocacy. Carmody, on ICC’s behalf, clearly identified the federal candidates, outlining their positions on abortion and asked voters, in effect, to vote for a particular candidate.

The FEC’s Factual Analysis confirmed FFRF’s allegation that ICC violated several reporting codes in the Federal Campaign Act. ICC failed to disclose its independent expenditure, failed to file a 24-hour notice of its independent expenditure and failed to include the required disclaimer. ICC was a 501(c)(4) group headed by former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, R-Colo. Its avowed purpose was to “assist you in finding the truth about the candidates and information necessary to make an educated choice consistent with Catholic doctrine.”

ICC aimed to provide information on candidates regarding “the five non-negotiable doctrines of the Church: abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage, embryonic stem cell research, and human cloning.”

The FEC found that there was reason to believe that ICC violated the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, wrote FEC Attorney April Sands in an Oct. 27 letter to FFRF. “[It] appears that at least one of the ICC recorded calls — the Carmody call — contained express advocacy.”

Because the Carmody call contained advocacy and ICC likely spent over $250 on it, ICC was subject to independent expenditure reporting requirements, FEC’s analysis said.

All of the Carmody calls were made by ICC within a week of the Nov. 4, 2008, election. ICC was a new lobbying group whose only major undertakings appeared to be the robocalls to Colorado citizens concerning two federal races.

“Lobbying groups spending more than $250 on an independent political expenditure have an obligation to report to the FEC. Any such group spending $1,000 or more within 20 days of an election on such calls is required to report the independent expenditure within 24 hours,” noted Markert in her letter.

FEC found that ICC spent over $1,000 in connection with the Carmody call after the 20th day of the election, adding to their repertoire of violations. The final piece of analysis further substantiated Markert’s initial concerns:

“The Carmody Call did not contain the full required disclaimer, as it did not clearly state the address, telephone number, or website address of ICC and did not state that the communication was not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.”

The FEC has notified ICC, cautioning them about future elections, but it appears to be defunct.

“It seems the Informed Catholics group was highly misinformed,” observed FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “Congratulations to Rebecca Markert for a major victory.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation