Crossroads GPS, Karl Rove's powerful outside spending group, is banking that a typo on the Federal Election Commission's website will allow it to spend anonymously for a few extra days without reprisal.
In the periods leading up to elections and party conventions, FEC rules disclosing outside spending tighten. Within the 30 days before a nominating convention, groups have to report political ads that don't explicitly tell viewers to vote for or against a candidate (which go unreported all other times).
This year's Democratic National Convention begins September 4, meaning groups that air these "electioneering communications" after August 4 must disclose their donors. But because a typo on the FEC website temporarily said this period began August 7, Crossroads GPS has continued airing its ad criticizing President Obama well past that deadline and has no intention of disclosing donors, according to the L.A. Times.
"On July 27, 2012, the Commission learned that its website reflected incorrect dates for the Electioneering Communication (EC) reporting periods for the national nominating conventions," the FEC website's statement on the error reads. "The Commission regrets the error."
The statement goes on to say that the FEC would exercise "prosecutorial discretion" in enforcing the issue. The ambiguity of this discretion likely means the commission will not punish Crossroads GPS for the ads or require it to reveal its donors, says Rick Hasen, a campaign finance expert at the University of California-Irvine.
"The FEC's been deadlocked along party lines, and any time there's any issue of close contention, nothing happens," Hasen says.
So Crossroads GPS's $25 million ad buy continues, unimpeded by the threat of disclosure. According to the group's website, it was scheduled to air on TV stations in nine states across the country, including Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, and Nevada. Because a recent law requires local stations in the 50 largest TV markets to post information on political ads online, it's now possible to confirm some parts of the buy.
Records at local stations in Detroit, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Las Vegas all show Crossroads has purchased advertising time beyond the August 4 deadline.
"You want to talk about brazen ... [Crossroads GPS's] whole operation is brazen," Hasen says, referring to the group's registering as a "social welfare" nonprofit despite its political activity. "Compared to that, this is nothing."
The FEC made perhaps an even bolder move by essentially promising not to enforce the law, says Joe Birkenstock, a Washington campaign finance lawyer. He says a ruling in a recent court case, the same one that requires these ads be disclosed, also covers how the FEC enforces such issues.
"What [the FEC] can't do is say, 'We're not going to enforce laws that are clear and unambiguous,' " Birkenstock says. "With groups that are better advised like Crossroads, is it really fair to say they were misled by the website?"
Thus far in the 2012 election cycle, Crossroads has spent more than $85 million on behalf of Republicans, according to the Sunlight Foundation, though that estimate is gleaned from Crossroads GPS's own voluntary press releases.
Seth Cline is a reporter with U.S. News and World Report. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.