Election Years Littered With Minefields
Those are among the federal rules to be aware of for presidential and congressional campaigns as the election season enters its final three and a half months. In state elections, each state has its own rules.
While campaigns bring out passionate opinions on both sides of the aisle, Congress and the Federal Election Commission have gone to great lengths to ensure that one person's enthusiasm doesn't interfere with the rights of others.
"Whenever you start introducing politics in the workplace, people go on high alert,'' said Kenneth Gross, a Washington lawyer who advises corporate clients on how to navigate election rules. "You have to be very careful on how communications are conducted, both from a legal standpoint and in terms of their appearance.''
Although the courts have ruled, for example, that when it comes to politics, money is a form of speech. But like all other kinds of free expression there are limits.
Because of their legal status in which their members are the equivalent of shareholders, credit unions have more leeway than other companies in fundraising.
A credit union can use its resources, including staff time, to host a fundraising event on its property if the invitation list is restricted to credit union members and certain exempt employees. Those individuals are part of what the government calls a "restricted class.''
A credit union can't use staff resources for fundraising events on credit union property if the event is open to people outside the credit union.
"Whenever you are going outside the restricted class, there's a much harder test,'' said Richard Gose, CUNA's senior vice president of political affairs.
Credit union employees or members cannot accept contributions at these events. Attendees must either mail their donations directly to the campaign or hand the check to a designated agent of the campaign at an event.
Credit unions that are located on federal property should check with a lawyer who handles election law to clarify the rules.
Individuals can give $2,300 to a candidate during the primary and $2,300 in the general election. They can give $28,000 to a national party each year and up to a combined total of $10,000 to state, district and local parties annually. They give up to $5,000 to a political action committee each year.
A political action committee can give $5,000 to a candidate during the primary and the same in the general election. It can give $15,000 to a national party annually and a total of $5,000 to state, local and district political parties.
Political action committees have to file regular reports with the Federal Election Commission listing all contributions they receive and all contributions they make. A committee can decide whether to file reports monthly or quarterly. For additional information on filing rules and penalties for violating those rules go to www.fec.gov.
Reimbursing people for campaign contributions can sometimes result in jail time.
"You can't tell someone that their contribution will be 'taken care of' in the next pay check or expense check,'' Gross said.
Executives can talk or write to their employees about giving contributions but can't do so in a coercive manner, nor can they link a contribution to getting a contract with the government or with the passage of a specific piece of legislation.
It is allowable to say, "Senator X has been a good friend of credit unions.'' It is not OK to say, "Give money to Senator X; he'll be more likely to vote for regulatory relief for credit unions.''
In their newsletters, credit unions are allowed to express support or opposition to a candidate, as long as the newsletter is only sent to the credit union's members.
Dillon Shea, NAFCU's director of political affairs, said the rules governing campaign contributions are arcane and suggests that when in doubt, people should ask an expert. "It's a fine line between what's legal and what's not legal,'' he said. "And it's not a line that always makes common sense.''