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If Democratic fund-raisers and party officials didn’t know Jill Holtzman Vogel’s name before, they probably did after March 31. That was when Vogel, the newly named chief counsel of the Republican National Committee, filed a scathing 67-page complaint with the Federal Election Commission, charging that Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign had illegally conspired with “shadowy” outfits known as Section 527 political committees. The complaint, which was also signed by Thomas Josefiak, counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign, outlines what it calls an “unprecedented criminal enterprise designed to impermissibly affect a presidential election.” By coordinating their efforts to buy political advertising, the complaint says, the Kerry campaign and liberal-oriented 527 groups such as MoveOn.org plan to inject more than $300 million in unlawfully raised “soft money” into the 2004 presidential race. To drive the point home, Vogel and campaign officials held a press conference to announce the filing and assail the Democrats and big contributors such as billionaire George Soros, who has given more than $12 million to 527 groups that oppose President George W. Bush. “Senator Kerry, who supported the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, is now the beneficiary of the single largest conspiracy to violate campaign-finance laws in history,” Vogel said at the press conference. The complaint, along with the RNC’s other efforts to get the FEC to write rules that tighten the regulation of 527 groups, puts Vogel, 33, at the center of a major political brouhaha. Democrats immediately denounced the filing as political grandstanding without a factual or legal basis, and observers on both sides think it’s a long shot to succeed. Democrats say it’s nothing short of a concerted attempt by one party to use the law to choke off the other’s campaign by denying it money. “It’s ridiculous,” says Joseph Sandler of Sandler, Reiff & Young, who represents MoveOn.org and Moving America Forward, two of the 527s targeted by Vogel. “We regard this as an effort to misuse the law to muzzle criticism of the Bush administration and to intimidate the groups and their donors,” says Sandler, who also serves as general counsel of the Democratic National Committee. Charles Spies, the RNC’s election law counsel, responds, “The legal rationale of the complaint is based on an advisory opinion supported by a majority of the FEC and the recent McConnell Supreme Court decision.” The legal salvo also has antagonized Bradley Smith, the Republican chair of the FEC, who sees it as flying in the face of Republican ideology and as motivated by pure political advantage. In a March 19 speech to a GOP group, Smith said that rather than pursue “some perceived, but wholly uncertain, political gain” by attacking 527s, Republicans should “embrace their deregulatory roots in the area of campaign finance regulation” and leave the groups alone. The battles before the FEC come on top of Vogel’s other key duties as the party’s chief in-house lawyer — like working out rules and credentials for the party’s New York convention, planning an Election Day vote-counting effort in key swing states, and keeping watch on the GOP’s intellectual property. Vogel, a native Virginian who is a 1995 graduate of DePaul University School of Law in Chicago, has Republican credentials going back to her 1992 summer internship in the White House of the first President Bush. She had been a deputy RNC counsel from 1998 to 2001, was sent to Florida for the 2000 Bush-Gore recount, and worked on the Department of Energy transition in 2001. Still, she says, she was surprised when she was asked in February by RNC Chairman Edward Gillespie and other party leaders to step in as the party’s chief counsel. “It’s never perfect timing,” Vogel says. Her law practice in her hometown of Warrenton, Va., which advises GOP campaigns and groups on campaign finance and related issues, was taking off. She and her husband, Alex Vogel, chief counsel to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), had a 5-month-old son. But Vogel decided the chief counsel’s job was right for her. So now she works full time in the District, supervising a staff of six lawyers at the RNC headquarters while keeping her suburban practice going in whatever spare time she has. The excitement of shepherding a party through an election year and a new campaign-finance regime made the job worth taking, Vogel says. “In this election cycle especially, there are more challenges for lawyers than there have ever been before,” Vogel says. “This is a very interesting year for lawyers in politics.” But Vogel doesn’t plan to stay beyond 2004. She told Gillespie that she will return to her law practice at the end of the year — and received permission to keep the practice open this year. Vogel is making her name known in the tightly knit campaign and election bar. “She is very capable,” says campaign finance expert Trevor Potter of Caplin & Drysdale. “She joins a fine team with people like Tom Josefiak and [longtime GOP outside counsel] Ben Ginsberg. And she makes a good addition to that team.” Says Covington & Burling partner and Republican activist Bobby Burchfield: “She’s one of the young lawyers in town whom I think the political community should keep an eye on.” Vogel says her party experience is a key strength for her as chief counsel. “I truly understand this building,” she says, spreading her hands out to encompass the RNC’s Capitol Hill headquarters. Vogel says that in her earlier stint as deputy counsel, she supervised the RNC’s response to subpoenas from the campaign-finance probe headed by then-Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.): “I know how the building works and what our issues are. And I had done the BCRA [Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act] stuff before.” That act, informally known as McCain-Feingold, and last December’s Supreme Court ruling upholding it radically changed the world of campaign finance. Now that BCRA has been found to be constitutional, it’s become the basis of pretty much all of this year’s infighting over money and politics — including the RNC’s March 31 complaint against the 527s. HEY, WAIT A MINUTE But last year, the RNC tried to convince the justices that McCain-Feingold was unconstitutional. Some see an irony here. “Virtually every Republican fought McCain-Feingold tooth and nail. Now they say it didn’t go far enough,” says Jim Jordan, spokesman for two of the 527 groups named in the complaint. Vogel’s complaint tries to extend the reach of BCRA, asking the FEC to rule that the liberal 527 committees, regardless of their stated purpose, actually work closely with the Kerry campaign and should be tightly regulated. The committees say they are issue-oriented groups that educate the public and do not support or oppose political candidates or coordinate activities like the purchase of TV ads with campaigns. “This complaint is absolutely untrue. We are carefully and scrupulously abiding by the prohibitions against coordination,” says Jordan, a former Kerry campaign manager who was himself named as a target of the complaint. According to the RNC, 527s should be required to register with the FEC and to adhere to strict limits on donations — no “soft money” and no millions of dollars from the likes of Soros. (The GOP has been more successful than the Democrats in raising regulated “hard money” from grass-roots donors, and tighter rules on 527s would thus have less impact on GOP fund raising.) In her efforts, Vogel has found support from reformist, good-government groups such as Common Cause and Public Citizen. Caplin & Drysdale’s Potter, who represents pro-campaign-reform organizations, says, “The GOP was on the other side of the Supreme Court case. But I welcome them to my side here.” Potter, who says he understands Vogel’s “frustration” with what he sees as Democratic efforts to circumvent BCRA, says it’s “highly unlikely” that the RNC’s efforts will end up having any impact on the 2004 campaign. “They want the FEC to act while it still matters,” Potter says. “But even if the FEC acts as fast as possible, it takes about a year.” And though the RNC has asked the FEC to refer the case to a U.S. district court to speed things up, Potter thinks that won’t work either. “Even if it goes to the courts, they will probably take a year themselves to review the whole matter, and then send it right back to the FEC,” says Potter, a former FEC chairman. Potter says the RNC filed the complaint as much to “keep public pressure on the donors and groups” as to actually win the case. Craig Holman, campaign finance lobbyist for Public Citizen, says the RNC complaint “raises some very good points about coordination [between the Kerry campaign and the 527s]. On principled grounds, the RNC has a case.” But Holman sees the FEC as dominated by deregulators and doesn’t expect either the complaint or the separate rule making to tighten the regulation of 527s, for which the commission has set a target of mid-May, to succeed. “And I suspect that the leaders of the RNC know that,” Holman says. “This complaint could well have been filed for political publicity purposes.” Smith, the FEC chairman, said in his March speech to the Republican National Lawyers Association that many Republicans “have decided to depart from their usual moorings, and instead are attempting to make aggressive use of the McConnell opinion in an effort to obtain short-term political gain.” Political speech should not be regulated, Smith said, “even when remarkably unfair in its allegations, even when funded by George Soros.” Spies, the RNC election counsel, responds, “We’re sympathetic to the deregulatory and First Amendment arguments and argued them strenuously in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Unfortunately, we lost. Now the law needs to be upheld.” Vogel, who briefly was a candidate last year for the Virginia state Senate, won’t rule out another run for office herself some day. But she is clearly energized by her new job. “If you love politics as I do, this is the most exciting area of law to be involved in,” says Vogel. “It’s dynamic in a way that no other area of law can be.”

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