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Statement of Policy Regarding Disclosure of Closed Enforcement and Related Files

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AGENCY:

Federal Election Commission.

ACTION:

Statement of policy.

SUMMARY:

The Commission is adopting an interim policy with respect to placing closed files on the public record in enforcement, administrative fines, and alternative dispute resolution cases. The categories of records that will be included in the public record are described below. This is an interim policy only; the Commission will conduct a rulemaking in this respect, with full opportunity for public comment, in 2004.

EFFECTIVE DATE:

January 1, 2004.

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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:

Vincent J. Convery, Jr., Assistant General Counsel, 999 E Street, NW., Washington, DC 20463, 202-694-1650 or 1-800-424-9530.

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SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

The “confidentiality provision” of the Federal Election Campaign Act, 2 U.S.C. 431 et seq., (FECA), provides that: “Any notification or investigation under [Section 437g] shall not be made public by the Commission * * * without the written consent of the person receiving such notification or the person with respect to whom such investigation is made.” 2 U.S.C. 437g(a)(12)(A). For approximately the first twenty-five years of its existence, the Commission viewed the confidentiality requirement as ending with the termination of a case. The Commission placed on its public record the documents that had been considered by the Commissioners in their determination of a case, minus those materials exempt from disclosure under the FECA or under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. 552, (FOIA). See 11 CFR 5.4(a)(4). In AFL-CIO v. FEC, 177 F.Supp.2d 48 (D.D.C. 2001), the district court disagreed with the Commission's interpretation of the confidentiality provision and found that the protection of section 437g(a)(12)(A) does not lapse at the time the Commission terminates an investigation. 177 F.Supp.2d at 56.

Following that district court decision, the Commission placed on the public record only those documents that reflected the agency's “final determination” with respect to enforcement matters. Such disclosure is required under section 437g(a)(4)(B)(ii) of the FECA and section (a)(2)(A) of the FOIA. In all cases, the final determination is evidenced by a certification of Commission vote. The Commission also continued to disclose documents that explained the basis for the final determination. Depending upon the nature of the case, those documents consisted of General Counsel's Reports (frequently in redacted form); Probable Cause to Believe Briefs; conciliation agreements; Start Printed Page 70427Statements of Reasons issued by one or more of the Commissioners; or, a combination of the foregoing. The district court indicated that the Commission was free to release these categories of documents. See 177 F.Supp.2d at 54 n.11. In administrative fines cases, the Commission began placing on the public record only the Final Determination Recommendation and certification of vote on final determination. In alternative dispute resolution cases, the public record consisted of the certification of vote and the negotiated agreement.

Although it affirmed the judgment of the district court in AFL-CIO, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit differed with the lower court's restrictive interpretation of the confidentiality provision of 2 U.S.C. 437g(a)(12)(A). The Court of Appeals stated that: “the Commission may well be correct that * * * Congress merely intended to prevent disclosure of the fact that an investigation is pending,” and that: “deterring future violations and promoting Commission accountability may well justify releasing more information than the minimum disclosures required by section 437g(a).” See AFL-CIO v. FEC, 333 F.3d 168 (D.C. Cir. 2003) at 174, 179. However, the Court of Appeals warned that, in releasing enforcement information to the public, the Commission must “attempt to avoid unnecessarily infringing on First Amendment interests where it regularly subpoenas materials of a ‘delicate nature * * * represent[ing] the very heart of the organism which the first amendment was intended to nurture and protect.’ ” Id. at 179. (Citation omitted). The decision suggested that, with respect to materials of this nature, a “balancing” of competing interests is required—on one hand, consideration of the Commission's interest in promoting its own accountability and in deterring future violations and, on the other, consideration of the respondent's interest in the privacy of association and belief guaranteed by the First Amendment. Noting that the Commission had failed to tailor its disclosure policy to avoid unnecessarily burdening the First Amendment rights of the political organizations it investigates, id. at 178, the Court found the agency's disclosure regulation at 11 CFR 5.4(a)(4) to be impermissible. Id. at 179.

The Commission is issuing this interim policy statement to identify several categories of documents integral to its decisionmaking process that will be disclosed upon termination of an enforcement matter. The categories of documents that the Commission intends to disclose either do not implicate the Court's concerns, e.g., categories 8, 9 and 10, or, because they play a critical role in the resolution of a matter, the balance tilts decidedly in favor of public disclosure, even if the documents reveal some confidential information.

With respect to enforcement matters, the Commission will place the following categories of documents on the public record:

1. Complaint or internal agency referral;

2. Response to complaint;

3. General Counsel's Reports that recommend dismissal, reason to believe, no reason to believe, no action at this time, probable cause to believe, no probable cause to believe, no further action, or acceptance of a conciliation agreement;

4. Notification of reason to believe findings (including Factual and Legal Analysis);

5. Respondent's response to reason to believe findings;

6. Briefs (General Counsel's Brief and Respondent's Brief);

7. Statements of Reasons;

8. Conciliation Agreements;

9. Evidence of payment of civil penalty or of disgorgement; and

10. Certifications of Commission votes.

In addition, the Commission will make certain other documents available which will assist the public in understanding the record without intruding upon the associational interests of the respondents. These are:

1. Designations of counsel;

2. Requests for extensions of time;

3. Responses to requests for extensions of time; and

4. Closeout letters.

The Commission is placing the foregoing categories of documents on the public record in all matters it closes on or after January 1, 2004.

The Commission is not placing on the public record certain other materials from its investigative files, such as subpoenaed records, deposition transcripts, and other records produced in discovery, even if those evidentiary documents are referenced in, or attached to, documents specifically subject to release under this interim practice. Release of these underlying evidentiary documents may require a closer balancing of the competing interests cited by the D.C. Circuit. Accordingly, the Commission will consider the appropriateness of disclosing these materials only after a full rulemaking with the opportunity for public comment. However, if a document or record is referenced in, or attached to, a document specifically subject to release under this interim practice, that document or record will be disclosed if it is, or was, otherwise publicly available.

The Commission will place documents on the public record in all cases that are closed, regardless of the outcome. By doing so, the Commission complies with the requirements of 2 U.S.C. 437g(a)(4)(B)(ii) and 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(2)(A). Conciliation Agreements are placed on the public record pursuant to 2 U.S.C. 437g(a)(4)(B)(ii).

The Commission will place these documents on the public record as soon as practicable, and will endeavor to do so within thirty days of the date on which notifications are sent to complainant and respondent. See 11 CFR 111.20(a). In the event a Statement of Reasons is required, but has not been issued before the date proposed for the release the remainder of the documents in a matter, those documents will be placed on the public record and the Statement of Reasons will be added to the file when issued.

With respect to administrative fines cases, the Commission will place the entire administrative file on the public record, which includes the following:

1. Reason to Believe recommendation;

2. Respondent's response;

3. Reviewing Officer's memoranda to the Commission;

4. Final Determination recommendation;

5. Certifications of Commission votes;

6. Statements of Reasons;

7. Evidence of payment of fine; and

8. Referral to Department of the Treasury.

With respect to alternative dispute resolution (ADR) cases, the Commission will place the following categories of documents on the public record:

1. Complaint or internal agency referral;

2. Response to complaint;

3. ADR Office's case analysis report to the Commission;

4. Notification to respondent that case has been assigned to ADR;

5. Letter or Commitment Form from respondent participating in the ADR program;

6. ADR Office recommendation as to settlement;

7. Certifications of Commission votes;

8. Negotiated settlement agreement; and

9. Evidence of compliance with terms of settlement.

When disclosing documents in administrative fines and alternative dispute resolution cases, the Commission will release publicly available records that are referenced in, Start Printed Page 70428or attached to, documents specifically subject to release under this interim practice.

With this interim policy, the Commission intends to provide guidance to outside counsel, the news media, and others seeking to understand the Commission's disposition of enforcement, administrative fines, and alternative dispute resolution cases and, thus, to enhance their ability to assess particular matters in light of past decisions. In all matters, the Commission will continue to redact information that is exempt from disclosure under the FECA and the FOIA.

As discussed above, the Commission hereby is announcing an interim policy. A rulemaking, with full opportunity for public comment, will be initiated in 2004.

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Dated: December 12, 2003.

Ellen L. Weintraub,

Chair, Federal Election Commission.

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[FR Doc. 03-31241 Filed 12-17-03; 8:45 am]

BILLING CODE 6715-01-P