FEC rules in favor of Stephen Colbert

The Federal Election Commission ruled Thursday that comedian Stephen Colbert could form his eponymous political action committee and use his show to promote it.

“60 days ago today, on this very spot, a young man petitioned the FEC for permission to form a super PAC to raise unlimited monies and use those monies to determine the winners of the 2012 election,” Colbert declared to supporters outside the FEC building after the commissioners issued their advisory. “I am sorry to say, we won.”

“It has been said that freedom isn’t free. Today, we have placed a sizable down payment,” he noted.

Stephen Colbert at the FEC in Washington DCThe six FEC commissioners issued an unanimous advisory opinion to Colbert at their monthly meeting Thursday, stating that he could form the “Colbert Super PAC” with a media exemption. The exemption allows news outlets to report on campaigns without having their work considered a contribution, which would then have to be filed on a candidate’s disclosure forms.

The commissioners did rule in a 5-1 vote that Viacom would have to disclose payments if Colbert were to place advertisements on any media that was not “The Colbert Report.”

Commissioner Donald McGahn disagreed with this portion of advisory and voted against.

Thursday’s ruling means that Colbert can use his Comedy Central show to promote his PAC without it qualifying as an expenditure.

Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, had worried that if Colbert promoted his PAC on “The Colbert Report” it would be considered a contribution. Colbert’s attorneys had asked the FEC to rule on the matter.

Colbert has lampooned the Citizens United v. FEC decision on his show since the Supreme Court struck down decades of campaign finance laws to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of candidates. By forming his own “super PAC,” Colbert’s joke became a decision with real-life implications for campaign finance.

{mosads}The FEC ruling is not Colbert’s first Washington stunt. In September 2010, at the invitation of Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), he testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee about the plight of migrant farm workers. “This is America! I don’t want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian,” he said in his opening statement before the committee.

He also delivered a mocking tribute to then-President George W. Bush when he was the keynote speaker at the April 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner.

Colbert usually makes public appearances in the form of his fictional character, an anchorman also named Stephen Colbert, whose stated goal is to get at the “truthiness” of the news.

And while his satirical campaign to form a “super PAC” originally pleased campaign finance reform advocates because it brought attention to their cause, they became concerned that his joke would backfire.

Advocates for campaign finance reform argued that with this decision, political groups would be able to push corporate money into overdrive by not having to disclose donations in media campaigns. They also argue that pundit-politicians like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee — both Fox News contributors — will be able to promote their PACs during television appearances.

The hearing had unusually high turnout and media attention. While the routine monthly hearings usually don’t pack a crowd, on Thursday the hearing room was filled with members of the public and media types. An overflow room was also set up on the building’s ground level.

Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, in her opening statement, thanked Colbert for bringing attention to “the important work we do.”

“You’re welcome,” Colbert replied.

Colbert, who came to Washington for the hearing, said little apart from his response to Weintraub, whispering into his lawyer’s ear at one point and grinning when the ruling was delivered.

He declined to say afterward what had been discussed with his lawyer during the hearing. “We were whispering! It’s none of your business! What do you tell your priest?”

“So lawyers are the new priests, then?” a reporter asked.

“In election law, yeah,” he said. “You can’t get to a super PAC without one, and I feel like I’m in heaven.”

{mosads}It was unclear after the ruling what Colbert planned to do with his PAC.

“There will be others who say, Stephen Colbert, what will you do with the unrestricted super PAC money? To which I say, I don’t know. Give it to me and let’s find out. Because I don’t know about you, but I do not accept limits on free speech. I don’t know about you, but I do not accept the status quo,” he said.

After his speech, Colbert asked the crowd to form an “orderly mob” and accepted donations for his newly registered PAC, in cash and by swiping credit cards on his iPad. At least four people donated $50 in credit, with many others passing the Comedy Central star their cash.

“I feel like George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ God bless you, you old Federal Election Commission!” he said.

Asked if he had a fundraising goal, Colbert replied, “Fundraising goal? How much money is there? Is there a limit? I didn’t realize I had to actually stop someplace. It is actually an unlimited amount, is the ruling.”

— This story was originally posted at 11:52 a.m. and last updated 2:00 p.m.


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