Attorneys representing an obscure Arizona nonprofit that spent $11 million this month on California initiative wars told a court Monday that the federal Citizens United campaign-speech ruling is one reason the group can shield its donors.
Americans for Responsible Leadership faces a lawsuit from the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which has demanded the group turn over transactions data related to an $11 million donation.
FPPC Chairwoman Ann Ravel said the commission is trying to determine whether the group violated California disclosure rules. The money went to a business committee fighting Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative, Proposition 30, and supporting a measure restricting union dues collection, Proposition 32. Brown and the FPPC believe the group should have to disclose its donors before the election so voters can evaluate who is behind the campaign.
A Sacramento Superior Court judge delayed a court hearing until Wednesday to accommodate ARL's Virginia-based lawyers, who faced travel and communications challenges due to Hurricane Sandy, said their spokesman Matt Ross.
In a 14-page brief, the group's attorneys said the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling is one decision that shows "the indisputable notion that non-profit corporations have constitutional rights."
ARL attorneys said the FPPC lacks authority to conduct an audit until after an election and did not consult its commissioners before asking for the data. They asserted the FPPC has never demanded the same information from at least eight other nonprofits, ranging from the American Cancer Society, which gave $7.3 million, mostly toward a tobacco tax initiative this year, to the Nature Conservancy, which donated $2.8 million as it sought to impose a fee to benefit state parks in 2010.
The lead attorneys for ARL are from the Virginia law firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak PLLC, which has long-standing Republican ties in Washington, D.C. The group says on its website that it specializes in advising PACs, super PACs and nonprofits, among other organizations.
Ravel, a Brown appointee, said she has authority under FPPC rules to act on her own between commission meetings. She said the rules are clear, "so that argument is ridiculous."
She added that the post-election audit rules apply only to groups classified as "recipient committees," which are already required to disclose their donors, and not nonprofits such as ARL.
"I think the fact that they are Virginia lawyers has certainly hampered them in their understanding of the law that governs the FPPC," she said.
Ravel said the FPPC is examining Americans for Responsible Leadership in response to a complaint from California Common Cause, a campaign-finance watchdog group that opposes Proposition 32.
"In advance of an election when there are so many issues pending, generally the commission only responds to complaints," she said. "We cannot audit or investigate every single committee that is doing political campaigns in California."
Brown, who has criticized the Arizona group's secrecy and accused the committee that accepted the donation of illegal money laundering, railed against the donation again at a rally Monday at California State University, Chico.
"Who are they?" the governor asked.
"Idiots," someone in the crowd shouted.
"That's one possibility," Brown said. "They're ashamed of themselves. That's why they conceal their identity."