Panel Reviewing Aipac Practice of Providing Data on Candidates

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s practice of providing information about political candidates to pro-Israel groups is being reviewed by the Federal Election Commission to see if it conforms to U.S. law.

At stake is the pro-Israel lobby’s practice of “meeting with candidates for federal office and conveying the information derived at such meetings to the general public in a manner which suggests persons support the candidates financially and otherwise,” the commission said in a letter reportedly sent to AIPAC in early February.

Corporations are barred by law from engaging in such practices. But an FEC exemption allows “an incorporated membership organization to communicate with its members on any subject, including partisan electioneering messages,” as long as the organization does not facilitate the making of political contributions by its members.

The FEC’s Office of General Counsel reportedly is recommending that the commission’s six members conclude that AIPAC does not meet the FEC’s standard of being a “membership organization.”

If the commissioners agree with the office’s conclusion, AIPAC would either have to stop providing information about political candidates or make whatever internal changes are necessary to qualify as a membership organization.

FEC officials said they could not comment on the AIPAC case or any other ongoing review. But Fred Eiland, the commission’s spokesman, said that when the FEC formally finds a violation to have occurred, it proposes how the affected party can modify its practices to conform to FEC policy.

Toby Dershowitz, spokeswoman for AIPAC, said the issue that the FEC is reviewing is “primarily technical in nature and hinges on the legal definition of a ‘membership organization.’ “

“The law is not clear on this matter, and AIPAC is one of a diverse group of issue-oriented organizations engaged in discussions with the FEC about the question,” said Dershowitz.

She expressed confidence that the issue “will eventually be resolved in our favor.”

‘MEMBERS HAVE A SAY’

Exactly how the FEC Office of General Counsel allegedly determined that AIPAC is not a membership organization is not clear.

But Ed Zuckerman, editor and publisher of the newsletter PACs & Lobbies, said that the FEC would have examined how much input the membership has into AIPAC’s activities.

The FEC would be concerned if “you’re really a closed shop” that has “a lot of people who are titular members but who have no say.”

If that it the case, “then you don’t have the right to distribute a lot of information to your members,” Zuckerman said.

Morris Amitay, a former executive director of AIPAC and now treasurer of the Washington PAC, a pro-Israel political action committee, said AIPAC should definitely be viewed as a membership organization.

AIPAC has a “big executive committee of over 100 people. They vote on policy and also the entire membership votes on the policy statements,” he said.

“I think that would show that the members have a say in the running of the organization,” he said. But he added: “You can’t have 50,000 or 55,000 members making all the decisions.”

The FEC inquiry stems from a 1989 complaint filed by several staunch opponents of AIPAC, notably former Rep. Paul Findley (R-Ill.) who blamed the pro-Israel lobby for his 1982 congressional defeat.

That complaint was filed by Dick Mayberry, a Washington lawyer who, coincidentally, is representing Texas businessman H. Ross Perot before the FEC in his exploratory presidential bid.

After the 1989 complaint, the FEC absolved AIPAC of charges that it acts as a “super PAC” by coordinating with dozens of pro-Israel political action committees that provide millions of dollars each election year to House and Senate candidates.

But even if the FEC rules against AIPAC this time around, few think it will have an adverse impact on the lobby’s political activities.

Victor Marchetti, editor of New American View, an anti-Israel newsletter that first reported on the FEC review of AIPAC, said that if there were a ruling against AIPAC, “I don’t think it would change in any way their ability to carry out their mission.”

“It would just mean that people like Tom Dine,” AIPAC’s executive director, “would have to do more things to show that the membership is involved, and this would just put a burden on him” as well as the staff and lay leaders, he said.

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