As Super PACs and campaigns continue to edge closer to the legal line between “independence” and “coordination,” it has become common to hear calls for the FEC to take a stricter role in enforcing the law. Yet as recently reported by BNA, the FEC has not found a single violation of its coordination rules in the past five years. A recent case before the California Fair Political Practices Commission (“FPPC”) provides a sharp contrast.

At its August 20 meeting, the FPPC entered into an agreement with state senate candidate Joe Coto, his campaign committee, and Vote Matters, a state political committee in which the three admitted to making and receiving excessive contributions and related reporting violations, and agreed to pay a total of $16,000 in penalties. The FPPC alleged, and the parties agreed, that Vote Matters made an illegal contribution of over $110,000 to the Coto campaign after it hired two individuals who had run the campaign’s field operation and had them provide similar services for the independent expenditure program.

The FPPC concluded that state law created a presumption of coordination when former staffers worked for an independent expenditure program in the same cycle as the campaign, and that Vote Matters had not rebutted that presumption. As a result, both the Vote Matters field operation (which the two former staffers ran) and the group’s direct mail operation (which they were not involved with) were treated as contributions to the campaign that far exceeded the $3,900 contribution limit. Even though the FPPC found no evidence the Coto campaign authorized or was aware of its former staffers’ activities, it concluded that the expenditures were sufficiently large that the campaign “should have been aware” of them and found it had received an excessive contribution. Because Vote Matters reported the costs of its mailers and field operation as an independent expenditure rather than a contribution, and the campaign never reported receiving the excessive contribution, all parties were also assessed penalties for reporting violations.

This case is an important reminder that some state campaign finance agencies are aggressively enforcing the coordination rules, and that coordination can occur without explicit agreement between the parties.