ew York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, an outspoken advocate of campaign-finance reform, has been hit with one of the biggest fines ever imposed on a member of Congress by the Federal Election Commission for violating campaign-finance laws.The FEC ruling, handed down in March, ordered Schumer's 1998 senatorial campaign to pay a civil penalty of $130,000. The campaign was also ordered to return $120,455 in illegal contributions, bringing the total of fines and restitution to slightly more than a quarter-million dollars. The campaign paid the sum in April.
According to FEC records, only three cases involving federal candidates have resulted in higher fines than the one levied on Schumer's campaign. No senatorial candidate has ever been so severely penalized.
At issue in the FEC action were more than 750 contributions, totaling about $915,000, dating from Schumer's 1998 race against Republican Alphonse D'Amato. The FEC found that each of those donations exceeded the $1,000 limit then in effect for contributions to a candidate during a primary or general election.
The FEC said most of those excess contributions were within the $1,000 to $2,000 range.
The FEC also found that the Schumer campaign failed to file notices required by law for $89,500 in contributions given in the last days of the 1998 campaign. The Schumer campaign also filed late notices for $186,500 in contributions.
After an FEC audit discovered the violations in 2001, some of Schumer's defenders downplayed them as "technical." But the size of the fine suggests the FEC viewed the infractions as a serious matter. At the least, the violations suggest a relaxed attitude on the part of the Schumer campaign toward the rules regarding the reporting of campaign contributions.
And the punishment might have been worse. It appears that Schumer's campaign benefited from a change in FEC rules, adopted last November, which in effect reduced the number of violations that were subject to fines. Had the Schumer campaign been judged by the FEC's old rules, the $130,000 fine might have been much higher.
The FEC cleared Schumer of personal responsibility for the violations. "The Commission does not allege and there is no finding that U.S. Senator Charles Schumer engaged in any wrongdoing in connection with the findings in this agreement." His 1998 campaign treasurer, Steven D. Goldenkranz, was named in the report.
When asked about the FEC judgment last week, a Schumer spokesman promised to make a written comment, but so far has not made one.
The 1998 Schumer race against D'Amato was, at the time, the most expensive in history, with the Schumer campaign spending nearly $17 million. Now, as he prepares to run for reelection next year, Schumer has already amassed nearly $15 million, making him the most successful fundraiser in the Senate.