Last week, despite what Democratic members of the Federal Election Committee called “compelling” evidence that an investigation should be pursued, the FEC closed its file on allegations that Robert Murray, America’s last and flushest coal baron, had coerced his employees into giving to his super PAC.
The commission, which voted on whether to open a full investigation into these allegations, was split 3-3 along party lines. “Despite the compelling available record in this matter, we were unable to garner the necessary four votes to open an investigation,” the three Democrats sitting on the commission, vice-chairman Steven Walther, commissioner Ann Ravel, and commissioner Ellen Weintraub, wrote in a statement released. “As a result, we were left with no other legal alternative but to close the file.” Four FEC attorneys who reviewed the case had recommended that the commission open an investigation.
Following a 2012 investigative piece in the New Republic that detailed the pressure Murray exerted on his employees to support his political agenda, the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility in Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint against Murray, also in 2012. The complaint alleged that employees of Murray Energy Corporation were coerced into volunteering their time for political causes and contributing money to both the Murray Energy Corporation PAC and to candidates of Murray’s choosing. That complaint was supplemented with evidence produced by a 2014 lawsuit on the same issue, brought by a former employee, who alleged that during their training managers were told that they were “expected to voluntarily contribute 1% of their Salary to Mr. Murray’s political action committee.” Murray settled that lawsuit out of court.
This is the second time in a year Murray has wriggled out of an FEC investigation: Last June, the commission voted 3-3 on whether to open an investigation into accusations that Murray had coerced employees into attending a rally for Mitt Romney in 2012. (Images from that rally were later used in Romney’s campaign propaganda.)
“The FEC being set up with six members (half from either parties) means that these types of outcomes happen all the time in these types of disputes,” Paul Secunda, a labor and employment law professor at Marquette University, wrote to Gawker in an email. Continued Secunda:
Dems say it was clearly employer coercion with regard to the election activity, while Republicans says this was just a disgruntled employee who was already fired for independent conduct. Pretty common fare in workplace employment discrimination law.
This is why it is so important that employees have the ability to involve a neutral federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), to ferret out unlawful forms of employer discrimination in the workplace.
In an article for the UCLA Law Review published earlier this year, Secunda and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a PhD candidate in government and social policy at Harvard, proposed that “political affiliation and belief” should be added to the list of protected categories under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“I did a nationally representative telephone survey last year that found that about 25% of all employees had ever had political contact with their bosses,” Hertel-Fernandez wrote to Gawker. He continued:
Of those contacted, about 20% had received a political threat of some kind—related to job loss, wage cuts, or plant and office closures. Workers were overwhelmingly likely to report that those political threats were uncomfortable, and that’s the category that the Murray Energy behaviors would fall into (at the extreme end).
There is a partisanship dimension to this too, as the most common messages that workers heard from their employers were conservative in nature. That’s not surprising given that in a survey of firm managers I did last year, I found that many companies were mobilizing their workers to reduce regulations and taxes.
“Department of Environmental, I mean, the D.E.P. is killing us environmentally,” Trump said in a recent Fox News interview. There is no “Department of Environmental.” Presumably he was referring to the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, which Murray also happens to be suing.