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Robert “Mike” Duncan and Joseph Sandler may have the same job � Duncan is general counsel for the Republican National Committee, Sandler for the Democratic National Committee. But that’s about all they have in common. Besides working for opposite sides of the political aisle, the two lawyers disagree on the role of “527″ groups, purportedly independent political organizations that have raised millions of dollars during this election cycle. Under the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (often called the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law), the 527s, named for a section of the federal tax code, can raise unlimited amounts of money as long as they don’t coordinate their activities with the political parties, or run ads that support a specific candidate. That’s how it’s supposed to work. But GOPers charge that Democrats are actually working in sync with 527 groups such as MoveOn.org Voter Fund. This spring Republican GC Duncan filed an unusual complaint with the Federal Election Commission. He argued that the 527s � the more prominent ones are allied with the Democrats � should be subject to the same McCain-Feingold contribution limits as other political groups. In mid-May the FEC decided to delay any action on the matter until later this summer. In making his thus-far unsuccessful pitch, Duncan, a longtime Republican activist and banker, took a page out of the other party’s playbook; Democrats have complained for years about what they see as unfair Republican fund-raising tactics. In 2002 it was largely the Democrats, with some maverick Republicans, who championed McCain-Feingold. Republicans have seldom gone to the FEC or the courts to complain about Democratic fund-raising, simply because the party has always raised more money directly from its supporters than the Democrats did. McCain-Feingold eliminated “soft money,” donations to parties for such general activities as voter drives and issue ads. (Under the campaign reform law, individuals can give $2,000 to candidates and $25,000 to parties for the general election.) Groups that only engage in those general activities � the 527s � were unaffected, making them the recipient of choice for donors looking for new outlets for their cash. What constitutes “general activities” and coordination is an open question, and that’s the crux of the dispute. Duncan says the pro-John Kerry ads and mailing list e-mails by MoveOn.org and others are anything but general activities. “We feel we are obeying the law and the Democrats aren’t,” he says. “When they spend over $1,000 to elect or defeat a candidate, they should register and have the same transparency that [the national political parties] have.” He notes that billionaire financier George Soros, an avowed critic of President George Bush, has given $2.5 million to MoveOn.org. Wes Boyd, the president of the MoveOn.org Voter Fund, says, “Complaints by the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee are completely without merit.” Democrats view Duncan’s crusade as a public relations move, or, even worse, a way of cementing the Republicans’ fund-raising advantage in the 2004 presidential election. Sandler, while not specifically endorsing 527s, says the groups provide a balance to organizations like the Christian Coalition, which generally support the GOP and, because they’re not strictly political in nature, aren’t overseen by the FEC. Sandler adds that for now, he’s taking a hands-off, even a GOP-esque approach; he chose not to respond to the Republicans’ complaint. “There’s no allegation in the complaint that the DNC has illegally coordinated with any of these groups,” says Sandler, who’s an outside GC, working out of his Washington, D.C., firm of Sandler, Reiff & Young. Sandler, who has been the DNC’s GC since 1993, began his career as an election lawyer at D.C.’s Arent Fox in 1983. He says he left his in-house slot at the DNC � while continuing to work full-time for the Democrats as outside GC � to form his own firm in order to represent a broader range of clients, such as nonprofits. At press time the FEC declined to impose restrictions on the 527s, letting them continue their fund-raising activities. Observers predicted a new wave of unlimited spending on ads and other activities, with Republican-oriented 527s saying they’ll now raise funds in earnest. The issue may be moot as far as the November election is concerned. But the controversy isn’t fading. “Under these new rules,” says Sandler, “politics is a blood sport.”

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