Three members of the Federal Election Commission issued sharp criticism of their fellow commissioners after the agency, not surprisingly, deadlocked on a "reason to believe" vote concerning the coal mining company Murray Energy. Thanks to FEC deadlock, another troubling campaign finance issue is dropped without even opening an investigation. The four-year-old complaint alleged that the company coerced employees to attend political rallies and make campaign contributions during the 2012 presidential election.
Important: A "reason to believe" vote isn't a vote saying that the company definitely did these things. It's a vote simply on whether commissioners believe there is enough evidence to open an investigation. From the commission: "A 'reason to believe' finding is not a finding that the respondent violated the Act, but instead simply means that the Commission believes a violation may have occurred."
So this vote, simply put, would have given a green light to start investigating whether Murray broke the law.
Commissioners Ann Ravel, Steven Walther and Ellen Weintraub believe the impasse on whether to begin an investigation sets a dangerous precedent, writing in their statement, "Every citizen should feel free to give – or not give – to the candidates and political causes of their choice, inspired by their own convictions, and free from outside pressure or coercion."
Furthermore, the three commissioners seemed bewildered that "despite compelling available record in this matter, we were unable to garner the necessary four votes to open an investigation, which prevented the commission from evaluating whether an employer violated this basic right."
Here's a little history on the case.
On Oct. 9, 2012, Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington filed a complaint with the FEC concerning the election activities of Robert E. Murray through his Ohio-based company Murray Energy.
The complaint stemmed from a piece The New Republic published on Oct. 4, 2012, about how Murray Energy required all employees to attend a Mitt Romney campaign event. Attendance was mandatory, even though the company shut down the mine and those workers reportedly were not paid for that day.
The company also allegedly pressured employees to give to Murray Energy corporate political action committee. The New Republic wrote:
"There's a lot of coercion," said one source. "I just wanted to work, but you feel this constant pressure that, if you don't contribute, your job's at stake. You're compelled to do this whether you want to or not." The second explained: "They will give you a call if you're not giving. ... It's expected you give Mr. Murray what he asks for."
Employees also reportedly told The New Republic that Murray sent letters to employees' homes with suggested amounts that the employee could contribute based on their salary. Furthermore, the complaint alleged that the company reimbursed employees for those PAC contributions by way of bonuses that were decided by Murray himself.
After four years of back and forth between the FEC and Murray Energy, the "reason to believe" vote came before commissioners in April, where they deadlocked on just opening an investigation on whether Murray and his corporation had violated election law through these actions. This stalemate means that the commission closes the case without any further action. (After a vote, the FEC has 30 days to make the file public, which is why commissioners are just releasing statements about it now.)
On May 20, 2016, Democrats Ravel and Weintraub united with Commissioner Walther, an independent, to release a statement about their thought process on the matter. "This case strikes at the heart of one of the key values of the American workplace," the three commissioners wrote, "that employees should be free to maintain their personal political believes and not be compelled to participate or contribute based on their employers' interests." They wrote they believe the commission "owed it to all employees to ensure that the workplace was free from political coercion." You can read it in its entirety here.
In a statement, Murray Energy told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that it was pleased with the outcome:
"We have known this for the past four years," its statement continued. "Yet, the biased Democrat Commissioners would not let this go, and still have issued a politically motivated, false, and inflammatory statement. Nevertheless, the Company and Mr. Murray consider this matter closed, and will continue to vigorously exercise their rights to participate in the political process as the law allows."
We reached out to Commissioners Matthew Petersen, Caroline Hunter and Lee Goodman to learn more about why they voted against an investigation. As of this post, we had not heard back from them. A spokeswoman for the FEC told us the Republican members of the commission plan to issue their own statement in the coming week. We look forward to sharing that statement when we receive it.