Comedian Stephen Colbert got permission from the U.S. Federal Election Commission to form a “super PAC” that can raise unlimited money from corporations, unions and individuals to support or oppose candidates in 2012.
Colbert, who portrays a conservative television commentator on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report,” sought a media exemption to let him use the show’s resources, such as air time and staff, without it being viewed as an in-kind contribution to Comedy Central’s parent company, Viacom Inc.
“I do not accept limits on my free speech,” Colbert told a crowd outside the commission’s office in Washington yesterday. “But I do accept Visa, MasterCard or American Express.”
The 5-1 ruling, permits Colbert to run ads only on his program. If ads created using Viacom resources are shown on other networks or the company funds the PAC’s administrative expenses, such as legal fees, Viacom would have to report the expenses as political contributions.
“The Colbert Report” has satirized last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that lets corporations and unions spend unlimited funds to support or oppose candidates by forming super PACs. Advocates for stricter campaign finance laws opposed that decision, saying it gave rich donors too much influence.
Colbert filed the paperwork to create Colbert Super PAC immediately after yesterday’s FEC ruling, according to Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman and campaign finance lawyer representing Colbert.
Swarmed by Fans
During the hearing Colbert largely played it straight, speaking only to answer the commissioners’ questions.
Colbert saved his jokes for the throng of fans who swarmed him after the ruling, handing him credit cards and cash donations.
“Fifty dollars or less please, because then I don’t have to keep a record of who gave it to me,” he said. “Also, please remember that your gift is not tax deductible for you. It is tax exempt for me.”
Colbert refused to say what he intends to do with the money, as he waded through the crowd with a credit-card swiping machine. Super PACs advocate and attack candidates through independent expenditures like television ads. The committees can’t contribute directly to campaigns.
“There will be others who say, ‘Stephen Colbert, what will you do with that unrestricted Super PAC money?’” he said. “To which I say, I don’t know. Give it to me and you’ll find out.”
Advocates for stricter campaign finance law praised the narrow nature of the FEC ruling.
“We think it strikes the right compromise in terms of granting the media exemption to only some of Colbert PAC’s activities,” said Tara Malloy, associate counsel at the Campaign Legal Center.
The Campaign Legal Center and other groups urged the FEC to reject Colbert’s petition, saying it could open up a “gaping loophole” in the law and let media companies fund political committees. The groups cited politicians such as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who work as paid commentators on Fox News while accepting money for their political action committees.
“If the press exemption were to be so dangerously expanded by the FEC, the next request will be for media companies to directly finance unlimited candidate campaigns under the press exemption -- an abuse that is already being advocated in some quarters,” Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, which advocates for tougher regulation of campaign laws, said in a June 29 statement.
FEC Chairwoman Cynthia Bauerly praised the commission’s decision, saying Colbert’s case raised serious issues about the limits of public disclosure of corporate contributions.
“Stephen Colbert is a funny man, but he asked a legitimate question and received a serious answer,” she said in a statement. “Although some encouraged the commission to treat this request differently because he uses humor as a vehicle for his commentary, I believe such an approach would have been unwise and untenable.”