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FEC seeks to correct 'errors' about tribal donations

Amid heightened interest in the political activities of tribes, the Federal Election Commission issued an advisory last week aimed at correcting "errors" in news reports about tribal campaign contributions.

In the past couple of weeks, numerous reports have suggested that tribes are exploiting a "loophole" in federal law in order to make unlimited contributions to federal candidates and political action committees. But the FEC said tribes are playing by the same rules as everyone else.

Under the Federal Election Campaign Act, tribes can contribute up to $2,100 per election to federal candidates, $5,000 per year to PACs, $10,000 per year to the federal account of state parties and $26,700 to national parties, the advisory stated. But a tribe cannot make these contributions if it is classified as a corporation or a federal contractor, the same prohibition that applies to other corporations and contractors, the FEC said.

The law also establishes a $101,400 limit on contributions "individuals" can make in a two-year period. But since tribes are not considered "individuals," they are not subject to this restriction -- and neither are certain entities such as political committees, according to the FEC.

"Indian tribes are treated in the same way as a number of other types of organizations, such as partnerships or certain limited liability companies, both of which are also not subject to the $101,400 limit imposed on individuals," the advisory stated.

The FEC didn't single out particular news reports that may have contained inaccuracies. But the issuance of the February 2 advisory hasn't stopped the media from taking up the story as part of the fallout of the Jack Abramoff scandal.

A day after the advisory was issued, Joe Garcia, the new president of the National Congress of American Indians, was asked on C-SPAN to address the issue by the host of the "Washington Journal" program. "It's the right of all Americans to petition congress, to petition politicians and to petitions others for the needs they have," he said.

"It's just part of the political process. The tribes should not be singled out from that process," Garcia said. A caller to the show argued that the media and some Republicans are trying to "taint" tribal donations in the wake of the scandal.

The debate continues today during an oversight hearing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. A slate of federal, tribal and outside experts will testify about tribes and the Federal Election Campaign Act. It's believed to be the first time the committee has considered the issue.

According to the PoliticalMoneyLine, a website that tracks money in politics, tribes have made $25 million in contributions in the past five years lone. The site appeared to attribute the increase to "exceptions" carved out by the FEC from 2000 through 2005.

"While acknowledging that tribes may give campaign contributions 'as persons' into the federal campaign finance system, the FEC has not set up any system for accountability," the site said in a January 27 posting. "The FEC does not require a tribe to register their name, address, treasurer�s name, or obtain an FEC Identification Number."

The FEC responded indirectly to these claims with the advisory last week. It stated "political committees, including candidate and party committees, must report contributions from Indian tribes on their regularly filed disclosure reports."

The advisory also said its rules "have been in place for many years" -- going as far back as 1978. The most recent opinion, though, was issued last March in a case involving the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, one of Abramoff's former clients.

Today's hearing starts at 9:30am in Room 106 of the Dirksen Senate Building. It will be broadcast online at

FEC Advisory:
Indian Tribes (February 2, 2006)

Federal Elections Commission Opinions:
Advisory Opinion 1999-32 (January 28, 2000) | Advisory Opinion 2000-05 (May 15, 2000) | Advisory Opinion 2005-01 (March 14, 2005)

More Advisory Opinion 2005-01 Documents:
Advisory Opinion Draft A and Draft B | Tribe's Request for Advisory Opinion

Relevant Links:
Federal Election Commission -
PoliticalMoneyLine -
Center for Responsive Politics -