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US Chamber of Commerce under fire for campaign finance

Liberal groups charge the US Chamber of Commerce with spending foreign donations on political ads targeted against Democrats. Chamber officials deny the charge, but campaign finance law makes it hard to know for sure.

By Staff writer / October 7, 2010

The headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States in Washington. Liberal groups say the Chamber is using foreign money as part of its huge campaign war chest – a charge Chamber officials vigorously deny.

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If “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” as the late House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O’Neill liked to say, then it seems to be overflowing this political season. Not surprisingly, this has led to charges and countercharges about what’s legal and ethical in campaign finance.

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The focus of particular attention this week is the US Chamber of Commerce, a powerhouse in campaign financing with funds directed largely to the coffers of Republican candidates.

Liberal groups say the Chamber – which has budgeted $75 million to support its favorite candidates this year, almost exclusively Republicans – is using foreign money as part of its huge campaign war chest, which would be illegal. Chamber officials deny the charge.

But it's hard to know for sure, because under federal law the Chamber doesn't have to detail the sources of its campaign spending.

Embattled Democratic candidates, the target of Chamber-funded campaign ads, are crying foul, some pointing to the need to revisit last January’s US Supreme Court 5-to-4 decision in the Citizens United case, which makes it easier for corporations and labor unions to influence elections through campaign advertising.

To dramatize the issue, the liberal groups MoveOn.org and People for the American Way will picket the Chamber's Washington office Thursday.

Will the Justice Department get involved?

In a letter to the US Justice Department Tuesday, MoveOn.org Executive Director Justin Ruben requested “an immediate criminal investigation into the use by the US Chamber of Commerce of contributions by foreign nationals to pay for advertising advocating the election or defeat of candidates for federal office.”

The essence of the charge – based on a detailed report by Think Progress, a project of the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund – is that the US Chamber’s political advertising money comes partly from the donations of foreign business members.

In a statement headlined “Lies & Damned Lies,” Tita Freeman, the US Chamber’s executive director for communications and strategy, calls the charge of illegal fundraising “a partisan effort to attack and silence the voice of business and free enterprise.”

At issue is the activity of the 115 American Chambers of Commerce around the world (“AmChams”), which raise money from foreign corporations and pay dues to the US Chamber. From there, the picture is less clear.

Think Progress alleges that money from the AmChams goes into a common pot, from which campaign advertising is doled out.

Not so, insists Ms. Freeman

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