NORTHEAST OHIO MEDIA GROUP
By Sabrina Eaton
WASHINGTON, D. C. – The Federal Election Commission has dropped its investigation of a Democratic-leaning group’s complaint that Beachwood-based Murray Energy illegally forced coal miners to attend a Mitt Romney campaign rally.
Three Republican commissioners voted to dismiss ProgressOhio’s allegation that Murray Energy violated campaign laws by coercing miners to attend the August 2012 Romney rally at the Century Mine, in Bealsville, Ohio. Two Democrats and one independent commissioner wanted to pursue the case, according to records made public late last week.
Romney used his appearance at the coal mine to criticize what he called a “war on coal” by President Barack Obama’s administration, which he said was costing jobs in the coal industry. Romney’s campaign later centered an ad campaignaround footage from the rally.
The complaint from ProgressOhio said that forcing miners to attend the rally constituted a coerced political contribution from the employees and “was something of value given from Murray Energy to the Romney campaign, which is a prohibited corporate contribution.”
The group lodged its complaint after a local radio host interviewed mine employees and Murray Energy officials who said that attendance at the rally was both mandatory and unpaid.
Murray Energy countered that no coercion was involved, and the company merely urged employees to attend the rally “to save the coal industry and fight Obama administration policies.”
It said that keeping workers “off the clock” at the rally ensured the company’s compliance with campaign finance laws, and that employees had “reasonable opportunity to gain back any work time missed if they chose.”
“The allegations were brought in a partisan manner, and they stem from anonymous unsworn sources who may simply be disgruntled about a shift change or upset about the company’s cooperation in staging a Romney campaign event,” said a filing from Murray Energy lawyers Scott Thomas and Jennifer Carrier. “There is no evidence that there in fact was any threat of job action or financial reprisal regarding mine workers.”
Romney’s campaign said it didn’t see any evidence that employee attendance was coerced, and noted that reporters at the event wrote that workers seemed “enthusiastically supportive” of Romney.
“Factory tours and site visits are a staple of presidential politics,” said a filing from the Romney campaign, which noted that Obama, too, addressed workers “at dozens of factories and plants in key battleground states” while seeking re-election.
A FEC staff report opined that mandatory employee attendance at a campaign event may constitute a campaign contribution, “since it would provide the candidate with the benefits associated with greater attendance.” But the staff report said further action wouldn’t be a prudent use of FEC resources. It said attending a campaign event doesn’t constitute a candidate contribution and suggested that the allegation be dismissed.
A pair of commissioners who wanted to pursue the investigation released a strongly worded statement last week that said “coercing employees into attending a political rally under threat of retaliation is an egregious abuse of the corporation’s expanded right to participate in federal politics” and a violation of election laws.
“The allegations in this complaint are serious and we owe it to the public – and most importantly the workers of Century Mine – to fully evaluate, with the benefit of all ascertainable facts, whether Murray Energy compelled attendance at the Romney rally,” said the statement from FEC Chair Ann Ravel and Commissioner Ellen Weintraub.
ProgressOhio called the decision to drop the investigation “an affront to our democracy” that “places citizens’ rights of free expression at the mercy of powerful corporations.”
“Under Citizens United, corporations can make their views known though independent political ads but cannot force their employees to parrot those views and attended political rallies,” said the organization’s executive director, Sandy Theis. “The evidence clearly showed that Murray Energy coerced its employees to attend a rally for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and did not pay them for their time.”
A statement from Murray Energy said the company was pleased with the FEC finding, “as the allegations made by ProgressOhio were completely false, entirely baseless, and thoroughly refuted” by a signed statement from 500 coal miners that was published as an ad in local newspapers.
“The company and Mr. Murray consider the matter closed, and will continue to vigorously exercise their rights to participate in the political process as the law allows,” the statement said.