In a press statement yesterday announcing that he would not run for re-election to the Senate in 2014, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) foreshadowed a new investigation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (“PSI”) concerning what he described as the IRS’s “failure” to police the use of undisclosed political money by tax-exempt organizations.  As the long-time Chair of the PSI Subcommittee, he highlighted this issue as one of a handful of matters that PSI will train its guns on between now and the 2014 election.

Chairman Levin’s statement made clear that one of the issues PSI will tackle over the next two years is what he called “a growing blight on our political system that I believe I can help address:  the use of secret money to fund political campaigns.”  He added that in his view “our tax laws are supposed to prevent secret contributions to tax-exempt organizations for political purposes.  My Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations needs to look into the failure of the IRS to enforce our tax laws and stem the flood of hundreds of millions of secret dollars flowing into our elections … .”

The PSI Subcommittee is known for conducting lengthy, thorough, and complex investigations that typically extend over many months or even years.  Although, from the tenor of Chairman Levin’s statement, it is the IRS itself that is squarely in his crosshairs, typically the PSI Subcommittee would seek to take discovery from regulated organizations.  If it does so in this case, that could raise significant First Amendment issues, particularly if the Subcommittee aims its often-used subpoena power at associations and outside groups that are active in the political process.

Generally, in the past, the “glass houses” effect has tended to temper congressional investigations of campaign finance.  Each political party knows that its own side is vulnerable to scrutiny, and so neither party probes too deeply.  There have been exceptions to that rule, however.  And with Chairman Levin freed from worrying about his own re-election, the chances of a full-blown congressional investigation of the campaign finance system are somewhat higher than usual right now.

Photo of Robert Kelner Robert Kelner

Robert Kelner is the chair of Covington’s Election and Political Law Practice Group. Mr. Kelner provides political law compliance advice to a wide range of corporate and political clients.  His compliance practice focuses on federal and state campaign finance, lobbying disclosure, pay to…

Robert Kelner is the chair of Covington’s Election and Political Law Practice Group. Mr. Kelner provides political law compliance advice to a wide range of corporate and political clients.  His compliance practice focuses on federal and state campaign finance, lobbying disclosure, pay to play, and government ethics laws, as well as legal ethics rules.  His expertise includes the Federal Election Campaign Act, Lobbying Disclosure Act, Ethics in Government Act, Foreign Agents Registration Act, and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  He is also a leading authority on the arcane rules governing political contributions by municipal securities dealers, investment advisers, hedge funds, and private equity funds.  Mr. Kelner advises Presidential political appointees on the complex process of being vetted and confirmed for such appointments.

In addition, he regularly advises corporations and corporate executives on instituting political law compliance programs.  He conducts compliance training for senior corporate executives and lobbyists.  He has extensive experience conducting corporate internal investigations concerning campaign finance and lobbying law compliance, as well as other corporate compliance matters.  Mr. Kelner regularly defends clients in investigations by the Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. House & Senate Ethics Committees, the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, the House & Senate Judiciary Committees, the House Energy & Commerce Committee and its Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, the Senate Finance Committee, the Senate Special Committee on Aging, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and other congressional committees.  He has prepared numerous CEOs and corporate executives for testimony before congressional investigation panels, and he regularly leads the Practicing Law Institute’s training program on congressional investigations for in-house lawyers.  He also defends clients in Lobbying Disclosure Act audits by the GAO and enforcement actions and audits by state election and lobbying enforcement agencies.

Mr. Kelner has appeared as a commentator on political law matters on The PBS News Hour, CNBC, Fox News, and NPR, and he has been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Legal Times, Washington Times, Roll Call, The Hill, Politico, USA Today, Financial Times, and other publications.