Four Democrats filed a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission on Thursday, charging that Republican N.C. Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole and Wal-Mart Corporation violated campaign contribution regulations.
The September issue of Source, the magazine of Wal-Mart's Sam's Club division, has a cover photo of Dole in front of an U.S. flag and features an article on her contributions to literacy programs.
Wal-Mart distributed the magazine to almost 200,000 people in North Carolina and millions more nationwide mere days before North Carolina's Sept. 10 primary elections.
The four N.C. Democrats held a press conference Thursday to announce they had filed a complaint asking the FEC to investigate the matter. They also have requested that Dole pay Wal-Mart about $2 million -- the estimated cost of the portion of the literature featuring Dole.
"They want Dole to reimburse Wal-Mart for the estimated $2 (million) to $2.5 million it would have cost to send out," said Marc Siegel, spokesman for the N.C. Democratic Party.
Siegel said that though the N.C. Democratic Party did not sign the complaint, party officials helped organize the press conference after they were contacted by many concerned citizens.
"The party had received dozens and dozens of e-mails," Siegel said, adding that citizens were right to be concerned.
He said Wal-Mart, which already had donated the maximum $10,000 to the Dole campaign, exceeded its limit on contributions with the inclusion of Dole in its magazine.
"(The magazine) talks about Dole and literacy, but it's really an excuse to get her name out there right before the primaries," Siegel said. "They met (their) limit, and with this contribution they have exceeded it."
But Wal-Mart spokesman Bill Wertz maintains that the corporation did not intend the cover or feature article as an endorsement. "We had hoped to bring some attention to literacy. The timing is unfortunate," he said.
Wertz added that Wal-Mart representatives contacted the FEC as soon as they knew Dole's inclusion in the September magazine was going to be a point of contention. "We have contacted the FEC ourselves and had done so before this complaint was filed," he said.
Ian Stirton, spokesman for the FEC, said all properly filed complaints are reviewed in due time.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Stirton said the FEC has only civil, not criminal, jurisdiction. "If somebody is in violation, they would be fined a conciliation -- assessed a monetary fine," he said.
But Stirton would not specify whether Wal-Mart's actions might constitute a violation.
"In general, say a business has a magazine and the business runs a picture of a candidate, some people would say, 'This is a contribution,'" he said. "If people file a complaint, it's up to the commission to decide what to do."
Those who have complaints brought against them are given ample time to provide a defense, Stirton said.
He warned that the complaint is not likely to be reviewed quickly.
"The enforcement procedure was not intended to be a quick one," he said. "They don't want a federal agency putting their two cents in right before and election."
The State & National Editor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.