FEC's Lerner tells conservative Al Salvi: "We never lose!"
CHICAGO - Former GOP U.S. Senate candidate Al Salvi's (photo right) revelation this week that IRS official Lois Lerner offered to drop the Federal Election Commission's (FEC) 1996 case against him if he promised to never run for office again was the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
"Before Lois Lerner (photo right) took us before the federal judge, her last offer was for me to promise to never run for office again. That was always part of their demands," Salvi said. "Before that last offer, another FEC representative that reported to Lerner wanted $200,000 and a promise not to run."
Knowing his $1.1 million campaign loan to himself was legal, Salvi rejected the initial settlement offer from FEC attorney Colleen Sealander. In later conversations, Sealander lowered the amount to $100,000, then $40,000, but always with the additional promise to never run for office again.
"Every time we talked, I refused the offer, and Colleen said she'd have to check with someone," Salvi said. "I finally told her I'd like to talk to whomever she reported. That's when I got a call from Lois Lerner."
During that call, Salvi said, he explained to Lerner exactly what happened -- that while the loan to himself was legal, there may be a difference of opinion on how the loan was reported to the FEC. Salvi explained it was a simple matter and said he thought Lerner would suggest an agreeable solution and dismiss the Democratic National Committee's complaint.
But that was not Lerner's reaction. Instead, that's when she said to Salvi, "Promise me you'll never run for office again, and we'll drop the case."
Salvi said he asked Lerner if she would be willing to put the offer into writing.
"We don't do things that way," Salvi said Lerner replied.
Salvi queried how then could such an agreement be enforced.
According to Salvi, Lerner replied: "You'll find out."
Without a settlement, the Salvi case went to federal court. After months and years of briefings, delays and court appearances, federal judge George Lindbergh dismissed the case on its merits. Lindbergh said the FEC's disagreement over filing, when two ways of reporting were acceptable, was groundless. The FEC appealed Lindbergh's decision, but their appeal was thrown back to Lindbergh's decision and the Salvi campaign won. Court documents show that Salvi was never fined or penalized.
Sealander and Lerner made similar offers to Salvi and his legal counsel in the process leading up to the court proceedings. Salvi's brother Mike and his wife Kathy led Salvi's defense against a team of D.C. attorneys, who were flown into Chicago to appear before the judge, Salvi said.
Negotiations with those facing FEC complaints are part of standard procedure, an FEC spokesperson told Illinois Review, but records of those negotiation conversations are not available in court documents.
The FEC office in D.C. confirmed to Illinois Review that a person in the Litigation Department named Colleen Sealander did work there during the years the Salvi case was active, and very well could have negotiated with Salvi. Sealander is no longer employed at the FEC.
Public FEC records show Colleen Sealander was active in FEC litigation through 2007, and resident records show Sealander continues to live in Washington DC.
Open Secrets.org also shows Sealander made seven campaign contributions to Barack Obama in 2012.
Salvi said the FEC controversy filed in 1996 lingered through his 1998 challenge of Secretary of State Jesse White. The Democrats used the questions raised in campaign ads that implied he had been involved in criminal activity.
"I remember getting a pizza with my kids, and looking up to see the TV showing the [Democrat] ad, and I didn't want to upset my kids, so I distracted them away," he said. "I'll never forget the concern that went on for months, affecting my law firm and my business."
And Salvi said when he thinks of that, he recalls the shock on Lerner's face when the judge dismissed his case. "We never lose!" Lerner said, and then, he said she distinctly threatened, "We'll get you!"
Salvi said he told his wife right away to get ready for an IRS audit - that it would be coming. He instructed his firm's accountants to err on the conservative side when filing tax returns, just in case.
But after the May 2000 dismissal, there was no contact from the FEC or from the IRS. However, there was from the FBI. In the fall of 2000, FBI agents knocked on the door of the Salvis' home and said they wanted to ask him about his mother's $2000 donation to his 1996 U.S. Senate campaign.
"That visit from the FBI was significant," Salvi said. "That meant a criminal investigation, not a civil disagreement with the elections commission. And, if a person lies to the FBI, they can go to jail."
Salvi said he reviewed the situation with the agents, and told them they were being used for political purposes. The two agents visited with his elderly mother and soon after, notified Salvi they were terminating the investigation.
"It was a nightmare," Salvi said. "People ask me today why I've never run for office again after being a state representative for two terms, winning a GOP primary against the sitting lieutenant governor to run for U.S. Senate, and then finally losing an intense campaign against Durbin. All the time this long FEC ordeal continued while I ran for Secretary of State in 1998 and beyond. Why would anyone run for office again after all that? I'm very happy now, representing clients and raising my family. Never been happier."
Some would say Lerner and those pushing her to use the FEC to stop Salvi from running for office again got exactly what they wanted after all.