Democrats may have to go to court to get Rep. Griffith donations returned



Democrats may have to sue Rep. Parker Griffith to reclaim hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations they gave to the Alabaman before he left the party for the GOP late last year.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spent more than $500,000 last cycle to propel Griffith to Congress over Republican Wayne Parker, according to campaign records.

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Despite an initial pledge in January to return the campaign donations of any disappointed supporters, Griffith quickly clarified that he would not return any of the money that the DCCC pumped into his 2008 race.

Griffith this week reiterated that qualification, telling The Hill in an e-mailed statement: “We are unable to refund any contributions from the previous election cycle to any donor as those funds were spent during the 2008 campaign.”

The lawmaker has vowed to return donations given to him this cycle. Griffith received more than $68,000 from Democratic legislators in 2009.White House Chief of Staff and former Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) contributed $2,000 to Griffith in January of last year.

According to the Federal Election Commission’s (FEC) website culling data through Dec. 31, 2009, Griffith had returned $2,550 in individual contributions and $17,000 in other donations.

The DCCC, however, isn't satisfied.

The campaign committee — which has been unable to publicly pressure Griffith to reimburse it for what DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) described as Griffith’s failure “to honor our commitment to him” — may seek legal action.

DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider would say only that the committee is “not ruling anything out at this point.”

The threat of a lawsuit spurred Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.) to return $263,000 in Democratic campaign donations after he switched parties in 2004. While no lawsuit was filed, then-DCCC Chairman Bob Matsui (Calif.) argued for Alexander to return hundreds of thousands of party and Democratic member donations “based on the fraudulent claim he was going to run for Congress as a Democrat.”

Van Hollen has used similar rhetoric.

“House Democratic members and the [DCCC] took Parker Griffith at his word and, as a result, invested a great deal in working with Alabamans to bring Mr. Griffith to Congress,” Van Hollen said immediately after Griffith announced his party switch days before Christmas. “Mr. Griffith, failing to honor our commitment to him, has a duty and responsibility to return to Democratic members and the DCCC the financial resources that were invested in him.”

But campaign-finance experts say such lawsuits are almost unheard of. And Paul Ryan, the FEC program director at the Campaign Legal Center, said any such legal challenge would face a steep climb, as federal campaign law by and large takes a “donor beware” approach.

“There may be some basis in contract law for the DCCC to try to get its money back,” Ryan said. “But the reality is the law is designed to restrict the way the money goes in, not to safeguard the donors.”

Democrats, in the meantime, are continuing their public-relations assault on Griffith.
The DCCC has sent out more than a dozen press releases exclusively attacking Griffith since he became a Republican. And its attempt to get its money back is now getting a boost from labor groups.

On Monday the Alabama AFL-CIO called on Griffith to return $10,000 in campaign donations that local labor groups made to Griffith’s 2008 race.

“Parker Griffith, we feel you have swindled us,” Al Henley, secretary-treasurer of the Alabama AFL-CIO, said in a speech to labor officials on Monday in Huntsville, according to The Huntsville Times.