By Dave Levinthal / Center for Public Integrity
In October 2014, then-Federal Election Commission Vice Chairwoman Ann Ravel did what she often does: speak her mind about political campaign issues.
“A re-examination of the Commission’s approach to the Internet and other emerging technologies is long overdue,” Ravel, a Democrat, wrote in lamenting a deadlocked commission vote over whether an Ohio-based business group must include disclaimers on political ads it posted for free on YouTube.com.
But Ravel’s statement—just finding it on the FEC’s website in no small feat—didn’t disappear into the Internet’s bowels as bureaucratic missives often do.
Instead, in a sign of how toxic American politics have become, it spawned unbridled ugliness, including death threats that have drawn the attention of law enforcement. What appears to have initially prompted the torrent of messages targeting Ravel: an Oct. 25, 2014, banner headline on the Drudge Report: “DEMS ON FEC MOVE TO REGULATE DRUDGE.”
“Die, fascist, die!” one anonymous person wrote to Ravel in an email reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity.
“Hope you have a heart attack,” read another email.
“Go fall down about ten flights of stairs,” yet another person wrote.
Other threats, while less overt, are equally disquieting.
“Best to be careful what you ask for. You will more than likely find the ‘Nazi’ scenario showing its ugly head,” one wrote to Ravel, who is Jewish.
“Keep it up, and the pitchforks will come out and then you and your ilk will have no place to hide and the People will have their justice,” promised another.
Ravel’s recent vote to sanction conservative filmmaker Joel Gilbert for alleged violations of federal election laws—the FEC deadlocked on the matter — have prompted a new round of hate mailers to, in recent weeks, call her a “communist c—-sucking b——” and wish her “the worst for you and yours.”
“Heil Hitler” is how one writer last month concluded a screed emailed to Ravel at her FEC email account.
Such vitriol and vulgarity, while commonplace for high-profile politicians such as Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, were previously unknown to federal election regulators who many congressional representatives—to say nothing of average Americans—couldn’t identify by name or face.
While FEC commissioners of late often clash along ideological lines and bicker among themselves, several current and former FEC commissioners interviewed said they’ve never once experienced hate-filled communications of the sort Ravel has received.
“I don’t recall a debate ever going off the rails into personal attacks … this is extremely harsh rhetoric and incredibly inflammatory stuff,” said Michael Toner, a Republican FEC commissioner who served from 2002 to 2007 and presided over the commission as chairman during 2006, when the six-member body last overhauled regulations addressing political communications on the Internet.
“It reflects a coarsening of the thinking process for some people—lack of a filter, lack of civility,” said Scott Thomas, a Democratic FEC commissioner from 1986 to 2006 and three-time chairman. “A lot of people now seem to be going off the edge.”
Law enforcement is taking the threats against Ravel seriously.
In late 2014, Edward Holder, the FEC’s acting deputy staff director for management and administration, contacted the Federal Protective Service in response to threats against Ravel.
The service, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that protects federal facilities, then interviewed Ravel, FEC spokeswoman Judith Ingram confirmed. Ravel also confirmed she received extra security protection during a public forum in 2015.
The Federal Protective Service “doesn’t comment on possible threats against government officials,” said spokesman Scott McConnell in declining to answer questions. It’s unclear whether the service is actively investigating the most recent messages Ravel received.
The October 2014 headline the Drudge Report splashed across its site linked to a Washington Examiner article that reported on Ravel’s comments about the FEC revisiting Internet regulations. (Editors at the Drudge Report did not respond to requests for comment.)
The story also quotes then-FEC Chairman Lee Goodman, a Republican who warned that Ravel’s interest in stronger Internet regulations could lead to bloggers and politically active news outlets facing new rules.
“I told you this was coming,” Goodman said.
Goodman underscored his concerns about Internet regulation days afterward during a pair of Fox News interviews.
“I can’t imagine a regulatory regime reaching deep into the Internet,” he told host Tucker Carlson.
“It’s really a specter of a government review board … the government needs to know when to leave well enough alone,” he later told host Steve Doocy.
Ravel, who in 2015 followed Goodman as FEC chairman, told the Center for Public Integrity that she believes Goodman’s comments contributed to the threats against her.
“He was arguing that I was trying to squelch free speech—I wasn’t—and it put me in an awkward position,” said Ravel, who since joining the FEC in late 2013 has routinely advocated for stronger election rules and enforcement and sometimes antagonized her Republican colleagues whom she’s accused of failing to enforce certain election laws.
“I feel very strongly about the First Amendment and the rights of the press,” Ravel said. “My point is that the Internet has advanced greatly since 2006, and the FEC’s rules about it are, potentially, obsolete. Our role is to talk about them.”
Goodman’s office said the commissioner wasn’t available to be interviewed. But Goodman emailed a statement disavowing threats against her.
“Unfortunately, too many people believe that the way to counter speech with which they disagree is to censor or threaten the speaker,” Goodman wrote. “The appropriate way to challenge an idea one disagrees with is to debate the idea on the merits. Commissioner Ravel’s formidable voice on regulatory issues should not be diminished by inappropriate threats or censorship.”
Current FEC Chairman Matthew Petersen, a Republican, called for civility, saying there is “no place in these debates for threats of violence or things of that nature.”
The messages Ravel has received, Petersen added, are “beyond the pale.”
Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, who acknowledged receiving “a few” strongly worded emails of her own in recent months, declined to otherwise comment. Commissioners Steven Walther, an independent, also declined to comment, while Caroline Hunter, a Republican, did not return interview requests.
The 2006 Internet communication regulations the FEC approved in a unanimous vote left most online political messaging unregulated. Only paid political ads published online became subject to similar rules governing traditional political messages, such as those that appear on television or radio.
Since then, the FEC has generally addressed digital and Internet political communications and transactions on a case-by-case basis.
In 2010, for example, Google asked the FEC whether it could sell “AdWords” text ad space to political candidates and committees without requiring them to include disclaimers. The commission, in a 4-2 vote, determined that Google could generally avoid running disclaimers.
Then in 2011, Facebook asked the FEC to confirm that its “small, character-limited ads” about politics are exempt from federal rules requiring disclaimers. In a 3-3 vote, the commission deadlocked on the matter.
The FEC has also grappled with cases ranging from political donations made via text message to whether candidates and committees may accept contributions in the form of digital currency, such as Bitcoin.
If the FEC addresses the Internet in any fashion this election year, expect it to be along these narrow lines.
Petersen, the FEC chairman, says he “highly doubts” the FEC will reopen the lengthy Internet-related rulemaking process it undertook a decade ago. He predicted the commission would take a much “lighter touch” this year that focuses on “providing clarity, coherence and guidance” on “discreet issues” brought before the commission.
There may also be renewed appetite on the FEC to eliminate from its regulations references to obsolete technology—yes, mentions of telegrams, typewriters and “magnetic diskettes” are still found—and otherwise update rules to reflect how campaigns do business in 2016, Petersen said.
Ravel, of course, prefers a more aggressive approach to regulating online politicking—an approach the body isn’t likely to take anytime soon.
So is serving on the FEC even worth it anymore to Ravel, who President Barack Obama nominated three years ago next month?
Beyond the threats she’s received, Ravel isn’t shy about her frustrations with agency gridlock, even appearing on The Daily Show in November to colorfully question whether the FEC still serves a purpose.
Ravel also maintains a home in California, shuttling back and forth from Washington, D.C., to visit her family in a commute she hardly enjoys.
In December, when asked by the Center for Public Integrity, Ravel revealed that the White House has seemingly taken little interest in her tenure at the FEC, saying she had never met with the president and had almost “no contact with the White House.” At the time, Ravel would only say that “it’s possible” she’d continue serving through the 2016 election.
Whether on purpose or by coincidence, White House almost immediately started paying Ravel more attention.
Visitor logs show Ravel traveled to the White House on Jan. 20, according to a review of White House visitor logs.
Ravel then met with Obama himself on Jan. 28 in the White House’s West Wing. Stacy Koo, the Presidential Personnel Office chief of staff, also attended the meeting, according to a visitor log entry.
Both Ravel and the White House confirmed the meeting but declined to discuss it.
“The President is pleased with Commissioner Ravel’s performance as an FEC commissioner,” the White House said in a statement.
Asked again how long she planned to stay at the FEC, Ravel said she “will stay as long as I feel I can contribute.”
In the meantime, she said she will attempt to take any additional threats in stride—as much as one can.
“These are an attempt to be intimidating, to make me either not speak out or to make me stop doing my job,” Ravel said. “It’s creepy, a little worrisome. I’m just going to keep doing my work.”
This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of its investigations on the influence of money in politics or follow it on Twitter.