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Published — September 16, 2013 Updated — May 12, 2014 at 2:33 pm ET

Legal fight brewing over ‘Stop Pelosi PAC’

Conservative committee seeks to name itself after Democratic House leader


A new conservative political committee that’s clearly no fan of Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has nevertheless incorporated her name in its title — and federal regulators are pushing back.

In a letter to Stop Pelosi PAC, an Alexandria, Va.-based hybrid political action committee that officially formed Sept. 5, the Federal Election Commission tells the group it must remove the “Pelosi” from its name unless its an authorized committee of the congresswoman herself. It is not.

Stop Pelosi PAC’s “failure to adequately respond” by Oct. 17 could lead to an “audit or enforcement action,” writes Paul Stoetzer, a senior campaign finance analyst for the FEC.

But Dan Backer, the PAC’s treasurer, says it has no plans to ditch the “Pelosi.”

“The commission seems to be taking an unreasonably narrow reading of the law to serves no purpose other than to curtail free speech — in this case, the speech of those who have the audacity to not support the dear leader from San Francisco,” Backer told the Center for Public Integrity. “FEC regulations are being used to protect entrenched incumbents.”

(Update, Oct. 18, 2013, 9:53 a.m.: Stop Pelosi PAC formally filed a response with the FEC indicating it has no plans to change its name and demanding the agency “must allow the maximum of first amendment freedom of expression in political campaigns.”)

Pelosi’s office sharply disagrees.

“Americans have a right to expect all political action committees follow the law,” Pelosi spokeswoman Evangeline George said. “Clearly, this effort is in violation of the statute.”

The law governing political committee names states that “no unauthorized committee shall include the name of any candidate in its name.”

It also notes, however, that “an unauthorized political committee may include the name of a candidate in the title of a special project name or other communication if the title clearly and unambiguously shows opposition to the named candidate.”

In other words, “it is illegal for a PAC to call itself the ‘Stop Pelosi PAC,’ but it is legal for a PAC named, for example, ‘Americans for America’ to create a website, or some such,” said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.

Former FEC Associate General Counsel Kenneth Gross concurred: “If the formal name on the FEC registration does not contain the candidate’s name, but the candidate name is used in mailings as a ‘project’ of the committee, it is okay.”

Even so, the FEC does not spell out what “special project” or “other communication” means in the context of PAC activity, explained Dave Mason, a former Republican FEC chairman.

“This was just a recognition by the FEC that the agency could not, consistent with the First Amendment, prevent a PAC from sending out a fundraising appeal headlined ‘Stop Hillary,’ Mason said.

It’s not immediately clear who’s behind Stop Pelosi PAC.

Backer, who provides legal and financial services for a number of conservative political groups, says his clients don’t want to publicly reveal their names until later this year, when the PAC intends to launch operations and begin fundraising.

He described Stop Pelosi PAC as a “natural grassroots organization” that would, in part, target Democratic political candidates throughout the country who receive fundraising support from Pelosi.

Stop Pelosi PAC has not taken legal action against the FEC. Backer says no decision has been made on that front. But Backer’s firm, DB Capitol Strategies, has a history of suing the FEC on behalf of clients in attempts to win them new campaign spending and electioneering rights.

As a hybrid PAC, Stop Pelosi PAC may operate both as a traditional PAC and a super PAC so long as it keeps separate books for each. Traditional PACs are limited in the size of donations they may receive, but are allowed to donate money directly to candidates. Super PACs may raise unlimited amounts of money to independently support or oppose candidates, but they’re prohibited from directly contributing to or coordinating expenditures with candidates.

Unauthorized political committees that adopt a candidate’s name often do so out of support.

Case in point: Rand PAC 2016 is a super PAC urging Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to seek the presidency. It has until Thursday to tell the FEC what it intends to do about its name seemingly violating federal statues, as Paul is currently a candidate seeking re-election to the Senate in 2016, regardless of whether he makes a White House bid.

Super PACs promoting Democrat Hillary Clinton for president have likewise materialized in recent months, most notably Ready for Hillary. But since Clinton hasn’t formally declared her future political intentions, the committees may continue using her name until she becomes a candidate — if she ever does.

Like Ready for Hillary, the Stop Hillary PAC, a provocative hybrid PAC for which Backer is also treasurer, is also for now in compliance with federal naming laws.

Among other committees naming themselves after candidates they oppose, Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center cites the 1995 case of the NewtWatch PAC. In it, the FEC ruled that NewtWatch must change its name to not reference then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but could use “NewtWatch” as a “project name.”

Read more in Money and Democracy

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