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post #1 of 2 (permalink) Old 10-26-2007, 05:39 AM Thread Starter
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Comedy Central serious about Colbert run

Comedy Central serious about Colbert run

Joke or not, Comedy Central is taking Stephen Colbert’s presidential candidacy — or, at least the legal implications of it — very seriously.

The network has consulted a top Washington election law firm and appears keenly aware of the strict election law provisions that could be triggered by Colbert’s satirical campaign.

Comedy Central this week issued a confident statement rejecting assertions by election law experts that the network, Colbert and his eponymous faux news show, "The Colbert Report," risk violating the tricky laws governing what types of money can — and can’t — be spent influencing federal elections.

“Based on the law, prior rulings made by the Federal Election Commission and advice of expert outside counsel, Comedy Central is very comfortable that the network, 'The Colbert Report' and Stephen Colbert are operating well within federal campaign election laws,” the statement said.

The expert outside counsel in question is the Washington law firm Wiley Rein, whose lawyers have represented the Republican National Committee and the first President Bush’s campaign. In 2003, the firm won FEC approval for a reality show about a mock presidential campaign called "American Candidate," which aired on Showtime, at the time a subsidiary of Comedy Central’s current parent company, Viacom.

In an advisory opinion requested by Wiley Rein, the FEC ruled that the show, hosted by Montel Williams and running only one season, qualified for the media exemption to campaign finance rules.

Colbert’s situation raises more issues, though, because he hosts his show and has actually taken steps to get on both parties’ presidential primary ballots in his home state of South Carolina.

Wiley Rein wouldn’t say whether it’s requested an advisory opinion for Comedy Central or Colbert.

But it’s evident Colbert has been coached on potential danger spots, because he has deftly weaved his efforts to avoid them into his wildly popular shtick as a self-aggrandizing right-wing talk show host named Stephen Colbert.

For example, on one of his four 30-minute shows last week, Colbert told viewers that his lawyers advised him to use a new campaign website rather than one linked to the network to post a downloadable petition seeking signatures to get on the South Carolina Democratic ballot.

A Comedy Central spokesperson, who declined to be named, would not answer questions about whether the network plans to promote Colbert’s candidacy, how much the network spends to produce the show or whether it paid staff and lawyers working to get Colbert on South Carolina’s ballots.

The answers to those questions could determine whether the FEC takes Colbert’s quixotic quest seriously.

That’s because, under federal election law, Colbert would be considered a candidate if he or his supporters raised or spent $5,000 in support of his “campaign.” If that happens, whether his campaign was intended as a joke or not, he’d have 15 days to form a campaign committee and file a statement of candidacy with the FEC. He had yet to do that Thursday.

Setting traditional fundraising aside, things could get dicey if the FEC determined that Comedy Central spent any money promoting Colbert’s “campaign,” which could possibly include the show’s production and airtime costs, salary paid to staffers and Wiley Rein’s legal fees.

Those could be so-called "in-kind" donations from Comedy Central or Viacom. It’s illegal for corporations to contribute money, labor or anything of value to federal candidates.

Colbert could have an out if he argued he doesn’t control the corporate funds spent on his show, argued Allison Hayward, an assistant law professor at George Mason Law School who worked at the FEC.

“'Colbert' is scripted. It’s an act,” she wrote on her blog. “Is that control of a 'broadcast facility'? I doubt it.”

Asked if Colbert controlled his show’s content, the Comedy Central spokesperson pointed to the shows’ credits, which list him as one of three executive producers and one of a dozen writers. The spokesperson also declined to answer when asked if the campaign was a joke, which presumably would be Colbert’s best defense.

Short of that, Colbert and his employer may be able to avoid the FEC’s wrath simply by not blatantly tweaking the agency’s rules, according to Bob Bauer, a top Democratic election lawyer at Perkins Coie.

“His best bet is to avoid flagrancy,” Bauer wrote on his blog. “It appears that Colbert will flirt with violating the law,” he wrote, “but since he has hired Wiley Rein, he seems also prepared to keep to the legal side of the line — mostly. If he just walks the line from time to time — as visible as the line can be — regulators will have little appetite for challenging Colbert.”

Comedy Central serious about Colbert run - Kenneth P. Vogel -
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post #2 of 2 (permalink) Old 10-26-2007, 08:07 AM
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