'Educational' Ads Blur Campaign Finance Rules Organizations' TV Spots Sidestep Regulations

Article excerpt

Byline: Don Thompson Daily Herald State Government Writer

A group calling itself The Citizens Flag Alliance Inc. began television ads this week linking Senate candidate Richard Durbin to a burning cross, burning books and a burning American flag.

The group founded by The American Legion repeatedly blasts the Democratic congressman in news releases and at press conferences for opposing a constitutional amendment banning flag desecration.

Yet it carefully notes that its purpose is only to "educate voters," not take sides in Durbin's contest with Republican Al Salvi of unincorporated Fremont Township near Wauconda. Nearly identical ads are being launched across the nation against seven other Senate candidates, all of whom just happen to be Democrats.

Republicans hardly have a monopoly on questionably cozy links with organizations that are supposed to be kept at arm's length.

In fact, Democrats have about a 60-40 advantage in both the number of sympathetic organizations running television ads and in the number of ads being aired, according to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The center found 72 different ads being run nationwide this year by 20 different organizations.

"It's really during this election cycle that you're seeing the major explosion of these ads," said Douglas Rivlin, director of the center's Washington, D.C., office.

That's just the latest and most visible development in an explosion of methods being used to sidestep federal campaign laws with "independent expenditures," "soft money" that ostensibly goes to political parties instead of individual candidates and "tallying" of excessive donations that are then used to back individual candidates:

- The National Republican Senatorial Committee earlier this month filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission accusing Durbin, of Springfield, of unlawfully urging donors to "tally" contributions to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to get around federal law. The DSCC paid a $75,000 fine last year for the practice.

"It launders excessive contributions from individuals," said the GOP committee's Craig Engle. "It absolutely blows the campaign contributions cap."

But a spokeswoman said Durbin acted legally because he doesn't control how much DSCC money is spent on his campaign.

- Meanwhile, Illinois Democratic Party Chairman Gary LaPaille last week filed a complaint with the commission alleging that the Salvi campaign unlawfully coordinated its efforts with another allegedly independent organization, former gubernatorial candidate Jack Roeser's conservative Family Taxpayers Foundation. Roeser denied the connection.

- And the National Rifle Association drew headlines recently when it briefly reconsidered $50,000 in crucial "independent" support for Salvi, an effort that gave him more than $50,000 in mailings and phone-bank support last spring in his upset win over Lt. …