The super PAC supporting Mitt Romney's presidential bid has accepted more than $1.2 million from federal government contractors, in apparent defiance of campaign-finance regulators.
The contributions, reported by the Restore Our Future political action committee over a nine-month stretch ending in February, came from firms in fields such as energy, engineering, and health care. They represent businesses with federal contracts totaling more than $244 million, according to government records.
The ban on political giving by such contractors has existed since the 1940s. Even so, several of the donors stand by their contributions.
Bolstered by recent court victories that expanded the role companies can play in financing independent political groups, they argue the curb on contractors is outdated and will no longer stand up in court.
"This is an area where the [Federal Election Commission] has yet to conform its regulations to reflect Supreme Court precedent," said Lynn Seay, a spokeswoman for Canonsburg, Pa.-based Consol Energy, which gave $150,000 to Restore Our Future in July. "Consol believes it has a First Amendment right to make contributions to independently support candidates."
The Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United case left a question mark over the ban on contractor giving, campaign-law experts agree. That ruling opened the floodgates to unlimited independent political spending from businesses, unions, and individuals -- provided they did not donate directly to, or coordinate with, the campaigns of individual candidates.
The ruling made no specific mention of the seven-decades-old contractor restriction.
Congress first banned federal contractors from donating as part of the 1939 Hatch Act. The ban was meant to address dual concerns: that companies might seek to buy their way into government work by donating to campaigns, and that officeholders might extort contributions from firms seeking extensions of existing contracts.
But the 1939 law was largely overshadowed by broader, older prohibitions on companies making political contributions.
"In general, corporations -- whether they were contractors or not -- could not spend money to affect the outcome of a federal race," said Anthony J. Corrado Jr., a government professor at Colby College in Maine.
But in the new post-Citizens United environment, Corrado said, contractors may have a what-about-me argument: If other companies' financing of campaigns and political groups is now viewed as a lawful exercise of free speech, why not donations by federal contractors?
The FEC has meanwhile made its position clear: "Government contractors remain prohibited from making, either directly or indirectly, any contributions or expenditures in connection with any federal election," FEC Chairwoman Cynthia Bauerly testified last year in a congressional hearing.
Citing those conflicting analyses, representatives from one firm that gave to Restore Our Future said they were unaware their contribution might run afoul of the law -- and have since asked for the money to be returned.
"We still don't believe we broke any laws," said a spokesman for M.C. Dean, an electrical engineering contractor in Virginia, commenting on condition that he not be identified by name. "But we asked for our money back in an abundance of caution."
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