WASHINGTON (CNN) - Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean accused Republican presidential front-runner John McCain of trying to skirt campaign finance laws Sunday by trying to opt out of public financing for his primary campaign.
Dean told reporters that McCain has already used the prospect of nearly $6 million in federal matching funds - which he now says he won't claim - as collateral for a January campaign loan and to obtain automatic ballot access in every state. Dean said he was filing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission to block McCain from quitting the public financing system, which imposes a spending cap on candidates.
"The law is very, very clear," Dean said. "He cannot be let out of the matching fund program if he has already used the promise of matching funds for loan collateral, and it's already clear from his FEC report that he has used that promise."
FEC Chairman David Mason raised similar questions about the loan agreement in a letter to the McCain campaign last week. But the Arizona senator's campaign has said its existing request with the FEC was never part of the terms of the loan, merely the possibility of future payouts.
Dean said the issue was a test of McCain's integrity. But McCain spokesman Brian Rogers accused the Democratic chief of "breathtaking" hypocrisy, since Dean opted out of public financing for his 2004 White House bid.
Mason asked the McCain campaign last week to provide more information about the terms of the loan before his agency rules on whether or not the Arizona senator will be required to remain within the federal financing system.
But FEC, which regulates campaign financing, is currently hamstrung by vacancies - four of the commission's six seats are currently empty, and a deadlock between President Bush and the Senate has stalled nominees for those posts.
McCain, a chief advocate of campaign finance reform, sought the option of public financing last fall when his campaign was in dire need of money. He notified the FEC in early February that he was not claiming federal matching funds, which would limit his spending on the primary campaign to $54 million.
But Dean said McCain has already spent nearly $50 million as of his last filing - "So it's likely he has already exceeded his spending limitation."
"He has made a career out of posing as a reformer," Dean said. "And the truth is, the reforms he's proposed apply to everybody but him. We've seen this again and again and again."
In response, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said McCain has done nothing more than Dean did in 2003, when he refused public financing for his unsuccessful presidential bid.
"Howard Dean's hypocrisy is breathtaking given that in 2003 he withdrew from the matching funds system in exactly the same way that John McCain is doing today," Rogers said in a written statement.
But in his Sunday conference call with reporters, Dean said that unlike McCain, the FEC voted to allow him to get out of financing system - and his campaign spent its own money on ballot access, a benefit to McCain that Dean estimated at between $2 million and $3 million. He also said he never used the potential of receiving FEC funds as collateral for a private loan.
– CNN Ticker Producer Alexander Mooney