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NVRI E-Update: March 2004
Notes from Stuart Comstock-Gay, Executive Director

Dear Friend,

Welcome to our new e-news format from NVRI! We'll provide a few updates on NVRI cases and activities and an observation or two about the campaign finance world. Your comments are always welcome.

In this issue:

  1. NVRI asks U.S. Inspector General to investigate potential criminal violations by Attorney General Ashcroft.
  2. Massachusetts redistricting victory and update.
  3. Presidential debates still exclusionary. NVRI sues FEC.
  4. New Executive Director, John Bonifaz finally takes a break.

1.  NVRI asks U.S. Inspector General to investigate potential criminal violations by
    Attorney General Ashcroft

In a letter dated March 4, NVRI and 4 of our colleague organizations asked Inspector General Glenn Fine to investigate whether or not Attorney General Ashcroft has committed civil and criminal violations in matters stemming from campaign finance abuses during his 2000 Senate re-election campaign committee. We have charged that the Attorney General knowingly accepted illegal campaign contributions, failed to report campaign contributions in violation of federal law, engaged in a conspiracy to defraud the government, lied to the FEC, and may have violated federal tax law. In January, we filed a similar joint letter with the Deputy Attorney General of the Justice Department seeking a special outside counsel to launch a criminal investigation of these charges, which have emerged through newly released documents before the Federal Election Commission. Our request for a special outside counsel remains pending, but we have filed this new letter with the Inspector General seeking a separate investigation of potential violations Mr. Ashcroft has committed since assuming the position of United States Attorney General. In December 2003, the FEC -- following an administrative complaint we jointly filed and following a federal lawsuit we have pursued against the agency for failing to enforce the law -- levied a $37,000 fine on Ashcroft's leadership PAC and campaign committee. That's a slap on the wrist for political committees connected to the nation's chief law enforcement officer, somebody who should be modeling obedience to the law, not looking for ways to violate it.

Read the letter at NVRI's website. We are joined in this effort by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Public Citizen, Public Campaign Action Fund, and the Fannie Lou Hamer Project.


2.  Massachusetts redistricting victory and update

The Massachusetts legislature ran roughshod over minority voting rights in its recent state legislative redistricting plan. That was made clear in a ruling on February 24th that enjoined elections in 17 districts because the legislature's redistricting plan, in the court's words, "sacrificed racial fairness to the voters on the altar of incumbency protection." NVRI's Brenda Wright has assisted the legal team bringing the lawsuit, which included the Boston Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the law firm of Foley & Hoag, and Boston attorney Burton Nadler. The question now is how the legislature will respond, and whether or not further legal action will be required. The court has given the legislature six weeks to enact a plan that complies with the Voting Rights Act, or the court will do so itself. Read the opinion at NVRI's website.

Unfortunately, in a sister case that would have established a majority-minority Hispanic district in Chelsea, Mass, the court ruled no voting rights violation had occurred. The court has not yet explained why it reached a different result in the Chelsea case, in which NVRI served as co-counsel with the firm of Goulston & Storrs and the Boston Lawyers' Committee. A decision on bringing an appeal will have to await issuance of the court's decision explaining the ruling.


3.  Presidential debates still exclusionary. NVRI sues FEC

NVRI also filed suit against the FEC in February, asking the court to pick up where the FEC has failed to act. On behalf of four "third-party" Presidential candidates, NVRI and our co-counsel, Boston attorney Jason Adkins, filed an administrative complaint before the FEC charging that Commission on Presidential Debates is a partisan organization and is, therefore, not entitled to run the presidential debates nor to accept corporate and union contributions. The evidence of the partisan nature of the debate commission emerged in documents and testimony unearthed in prior litigation during the 2000 election. NVRI represents Patrick Buchanan, Ralph Nader, John Hagelin, Howard Philips, and the Natural Law, Green and Constitution parties. The suit was filed in court because the FEC has still failed to act on the June 2003 administrative complaint filed before the agency. Read the press release at NVRI's website.


4.  New Executive Director, John Bonifaz finally takes a break

I'm thrilled to have joined NVRI efforts to pursue full participation by all in American democracy. For those of you who missed the update, I joined NVRI at the beginning of February. (Read letter from NVRI Board Chair, Laura E. Hankins, announcing the transition at NVRI's website). As I settle in here at NVRI I'm spending much of my time in the first few months listening to our friends, supporters and colleagues as we consider next steps and strategies for the organization and the campaign finance movement. We're looking at everything - consistent with our core mission - and your input is more than welcome. Please contact me anytime with ideas or suggestions. My contact information is below.

Meanwhile, as I come in to NVRI, John Bonifaz, NVRI's fabulous founder, former Executive Director, and now General Counsel, takes a 3-month sabbatical to charge his batteries for the next steps in this work.

I look forward to working with all of you as we continue to pursue our goal of protecting the rights of all Americans to engage in the political process in a fair and balanced way, regardless of their wealth or lack of wealth.


Stuart Comstock-Gay
Executive Director
National Voting Rights Institute
[email protected]


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