updated 12/1/2006 11:11:45 AM ET 2006-12-01T16:11:45

The Federal Election Commission on Thursday took steps to encourage politicians and contributors to report their own possible violations of campaign finance laws by offering them significantly reduced fines.

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Commission officials said the number of self-reported violations has increased recently, prompting the need for a specific policy that spells out how the FEC will dispose of such cases.

"This is not meant to be a get out of jail free card," said Commissioner Ellen Weintraub. "If you're racing to the FEC three steps in front of the guy who's got the complaint in his hand against you, this policy is probably not for you."

Benefits to turning yourself in
Before fully adopting the policy, the commission has asked for public comment on the proposal by Jan. 29.

The proposal contains two penalty recommendations for violators who voluntarily blow the whistle on themselves. One would reduce civil penalties by 50 to 75 percent of standard fines, depending on the steps taken to report and correct the violation. Another would set the reduction at 50 percent, but give the commission leeway to lower or increase the discount based on mitigating factors.

"What this policy focuses on are people who come in and tell us things that we would not otherwise know," Weintraub said.

Additional hearings possible
Commission members also want to set up an eight-month pilot program that would allow organizations or individuals under investigation by the FEC to request a hearing before the commission if the FEC determines there is probable cause a violation occurred.

Under existing policy, the parties under investigation can only make their case in legal briefs to the commission. Commissioner Hans von Spakovsky argued that such a hearing should be a "basic procedural right."

"The target of an investigation by a government agency should have the ability to appear before that agency to present his side of the story, his arguments on the law," von Spakovsky said.

Efficiency concerns
Critics of the FEC often complain that the agency takes too long to resolve complaints. Some watchdog organizations caution that such hearings could slow down the FEC's enforcement process.

Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center said that while such hearings could add elements of fairness to the FEC's procedures it would not make the process more efficient.

"Adding a new layer to the enforcement process though scheduling hearings and having to bring in staff to facilitate these hearings would seem to only exacerbate the strain that is already being felt by the commission staff on their limited sources," Ryan said.

Commissioners said the FEC, which is required by law to address all complaints that it receives, has been acting more quickly on cases. It has a goal of addressing all complaints within the two-year election cycle in which they are filed.

"Some people don't seem like they're going to be satisfied until we're given the power of the Red Queen in 'Alice in Wonderland' so as soon as a complaint is filed we can say, 'Off with their political heads,'" von Spakovsky said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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