Darrell Issa denies accusations by End Citizens United of violating rules overseen by the Federal Election Commission. Times of San Diego photo illustration

A Democratic-aligned advocacy group has filed a federal complaint against Republican Darrell Issa, the former 49th District congressman seeking election in East County’s 50th District.

Washington-based End Citizens United sent a 900-word letter to the Federal Election Commission alleging that Issa violated solicitation rules in promoting a Lakeside fundraiser Thursday.

Specifically, the group says Issa broke the Federal Election Campaign Act as amended by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which bars federal candidates from raising “soft money” — funds outside of the federal contribution limits and source restrictions — in connection with an election.

End Citizens United letter to the FEC. (PDF)

As evidence, the group cites an Oct. 6 email to supporters and Facebook posts by Issa promoting the Lakeside event set to start at 5:30 p.m.

“Congressman Darrell Issa invites you to a fundraiser for East County [candidates] benefiting” 15 state and local candidates, said a quoted email.

On Facebook, Issa said: “I hope you will join me this Thursday in Lakeside for a meet and greet and to raise funds for all the local Republicans running in East County. … Contributions accepted payable to The Republican Party of San Diego County or to the candidate of your choice.”

The Issa campaign denies it broke federal rules.

“This is a free event,” said John B. Franklin, an Issa campaign spokesman and adviser. “After reviewing the flyer with FEC counsel, we confirmed our belief that the flyer does not constitute a solicitation under law.”

He noted that no dollar amount was requested.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we have added language clarifying that the congressman is not soliciting funds from labor unions, foreign nationals or corporations or funds outside the federal limits for the county and City Council candidates listed on the flyer,” he said Wednesday.

Franklin added: “This frivolous, partisan complaint will be promptly disregarded by the FEC.”

But Paul Ryan, a vice president at the watchdog group Common Cause, disagreed.

“Darrell Issa has clearly violated the federal law ‘soft money’ solicitation prohibition as alleged in the complaint,” Ryan told Times of San Diego on Thursday.

He rejected the Issa campaign’s argument that he didn’t violate the law because “no dollar amount was requested.”

Ryan said via email: “The relevant FEC regulation (11 CFR 300.2(m)) defines solicit broadly to mean ‘to ask, request, or recommend, explicitly or implicitly, that another person make a contribution. … A solicitation is an oral or written communication that, construed as reasonably understood in the context in which it is made, contains a clear message asking, requesting, or recommending that another person make a contribution, donation, transfer of funds, or otherwise provide anything of value. A solicitation may be made directly or indirectly.”

The regulation doesn’t require a candidate to name a specific dollar amount in order for a communication to constitute a solicitation, he said.

“The only reasonable understanding of Issa’s invitation to the fundraiser is as a request or recommendation that people make contributions to the named candidates,” Ryan said. “Issa’s fundraiser invitation is an illegal solicitation of ‘soft money.’”

Image of Facebook ad promoting Thursday’s fundraiser in Lakeside.

Elections expert Jessica Levinson of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles added her concurrence.

“The FEC regulation applies even if a candidate does not name a specific dollar amount,” she said. “You can’t escape the solicitation prohibition merely be failing to list a certain amount.”

Bawadden Sayed, a spokesman for End Citizens United, responded to the Issa defense.

“The fact that it needed to be updated shows the language was not within the bounds of what’s allowed,” Sayed said. “The subject line in the email literally says ‘East County Candidate Fundraiser’ and it says inviting you to a ‘fundraiser.’ It even says who it will benefit, which makes it unambiguously a solicitation.”

He added: “If breaking the law with this email isn’t bad enough, he should go to jail for being the most brazen liar in the world.”

Times of San Diego reached out to all 15 names on the list, including Board of Supervisors candidate Joel Anderson, Lemon Grove mayor candidate Jerry Jones and Santee mayor hopeful John Minto. None responded except Jones and Minto.

“All news to me,” Jones said of the fundraiser. “No one contacted me or informed me that this was out there, nor was I part of any discussion or planning for the event.”

Still, was he planning to attend the event?

“Why would I?” Jones said. “It’s not my event.”

Minto, the incumbent Santee mayor, said via email that he’d heard about the event through the grapevine but didn’t know he was listed on the announcement.

“I talked with the Issa campaign to let them know that I would not be attending,” he said.

According to the FEC website, “knowing and willful violations” of the election law can yield a civil penalty not less than 300% of the amount of any contribution involved in the violation but not greater that $69,743 or 1,000% of the amount of any contribution involved in the violation.

Ammar Campa-Najjar, Issa’s Democratic rival, tweeted about the alleged violation Thursday, saying: “Darrell Issa just broke FEC law, compromising the County Republican Party in the process. The @SDRepublicans should distance themselves from Issa and remove him from today’s fundraiser.”

In a news release, the Democrat seeking the seat vacated by resigned Rep. Duncan D. Hunter quoted the president of End Citizens United in a statement.

“Darrell Issa was forced into retirement in 2018 because of his record of rampant corruption,” said ECU President Tiffany Muller. “Issa’s blatant disregard for the law in 2020 proves he hasn’t changed. The law clearly states that federal candidates can’t solicit ‘soft money’ for non-federal candidates. Darrell Issa either thinks he’s above the law or he was hoping he wouldn’t get caught. The FEC should immediately investigate.”

An FEC spokesman on Friday said the office had just received the complaint.

He noted that a provision of the federal statute requires confidentiality on open enforcement matters.

“As a result, we will be unable to provide you with any information on the status of the complaint until the matter has been closed,” said Christian Hilland, FEC deputy press officer.

He also confirmed that the agency does not have a working quorum of at least four commissioners. NPR said in August that with only three commissioners “enforcement of federal campaign finance laws [are left] unattended ahead of the 2020 election.”

Facebook post regarding the Lakeside fundraiser.

“As a result, the Commission is unable to move forward with any newly filed complaints until the president nominates and the Senate confirms at least one new commissioner,” Hilland said.

Loyola’s Levinson acknowledged that the FEC is not functioning.

“The complaint is on the fast-track to Nowhere-ville in the short-term,” she said.

Muller, the ECU president who signed the FEC complaint (and got it notarized Wednesday), concluded:

“There is indisputable proof that Mr. Issa violated the Act by soliciting soft money for a number of nonfederal committees; there is strong evidence his violation was knowing and willful; and, should he appear at the advertised fundraising event, it would be a further illegal soft money solicitation.”

She called on the agency to promptly investigate the matter, “fine respondents the maximum amount
permitted by law, enjoin respondents from any future violations, and take such other action as the
commission deems appropriate.”

Updated at 2:28 p.m. Oct. 11, 2020