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Federal appeals court questions ruling on AIPAC

WASHINGTON, Dec. 9 (JTA) — In a stunning reversal, a federal appeals court has opened the question of whether the American Israel Public Affairs Committee should be subject to restrictive federal campaign finance laws. In an 8-2 decision handed down last Friday and released Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the Federal Election Commission misapplied the law in a 1992 decision that found that the pro-Israel lobby did not fall under its jurisdiction. The court “seems to be saying that AIPAC should register as a political committee,” said Ian Stirton, the FEC’s senior public affairs specialist. The FEC, in response to a complaint filed in the early 1990s, found that AIPAC spent money in an effort to influence congressional elections, said Stirton, whose governmental agency monitors campaign contributions. But the FEC also ruled that this was not AIPAC’s “major purpose,” he said. The pro-Israel lobby, therefore, did not have to register as a political committee, Stirton added. On appeal, a lower district court upheld the FEC ruling, as did a three- judge panel at the federal appeals court. But the plaintiffs pursued the case, appealing to the full panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The appeals court, in its ruling last week, said the “major purpose test” should not apply in this situation. With its decision, it threw the case back to the FEC. According to Stirton, the FEC has many options. It can appeal the decision to the Supreme Court within 90 days, find another reason to rule that AIPAC is not a political committee or declare AIPAC a political committee. AIPAC officials expressed optimism that in the end, the courts and the FEC would rule that they are not a political committee. “I’m convinced that if the FEC does reopen the case and get into the relevant facts and legal issues, they will come to the conclusion that we are not a political committee,” said AIPAC President Melvin Dow. “The court did not decide that AIPAC is a political committee. The court did not decide that AIPAC violated election law. The court found that the FEC made a legal mistake,” he said. If AIPAC is forced to resister with the FEC, the lobby would have to open its books to the FEC and the public. The FEC could also impose limits on contributions from AIPAC donors and limit spending on its political activity, officials said. AIPAC officials vehemently deny that the lobby is involved in influencing elections and have called the complaint against it an action “by those who disagree strongly with the position AIPAC takes in regard to the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Dow said. The lawsuit was filed by James Akins, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and was supported by former Rep. Paul Findley (R-Ill.) and former U.S. Information Agency official Richard Curtiss. All are known for their staunch opposition to Israel.