A Sacramento Superior Court judge tentatively ruled Tuesday that an obscure Arizona nonprofit must submit documents for a state audit of its $11 million initiative contribution, siding with the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
The state campaign watchdog agency and Gov. Jerry Brown have criticized Phoenix-based Americans for Responsible Leadership for cloaking its contributors, saying voters deserve to know who is behind the eight-figure check. The funds went to a business committee opposed to Brown's tax initiative, Proposition 30, and supportive of a measure restricting union dues collection, Proposition 32.
FPPC chairwoman Ann Ravel, a Brown appointee, said her agency is trying to determine whether ARL violated state campaign disclosure rules, which require a nonprofit to reveal its contributors if funds were earmarked for an initiative effort. The commission is seeking everything from donor emails to financial transaction records to determine if a violation took place, which could lead to public disclosure.
Judge Shelleyanne W.L. Chang wrote in a tentative ruling Tuesday that the FPPC has the authority to audit a nonprofit before an election and agreed that voters "will suffer irreparable harm" because they will never know the donors they potentially have the right to know.
But it is far from certain that voters will learn that information before Tuesday's election. Americans for Responsible Leadership could appeal the decision to a higher court. It also has the right to an administrative hearing if state regulators conclude the group violated state rules.
ARL's Virginia-based attorneys specialize in campaign finance cases and referenced the 2010 federal Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling as one reason the group could keep its donors anonymous. But Chang wrote, "Nothing in Citizens United prohibits this state-mandated disclosure."
ARL attorneys argued that the nonprofit group does not need to disclose its donors to the state nor turn over documents requested by the FPPC. The attorneys said the FPPC had overstepped its powers, could not audit until after an election, and targeted ARL despite ignoring past multimillion-dollar nonprofit contributions from the American Cancer Society and Nature Conservancy.
Brown has continued to use the Arizona group as a foil this month as he asks voters to support Proposition 30. In an email Tuesday seeking donations, the governor called Americans for Responsible Leadership a "phony non-profit," "Arizona bandits" and "masked men."
"Who are these guys? Are they foreigners?" he asked.
Both ARL and the FPPC are scheduled to appear today in Sacramento Superior Court before the ruling becomes final. The FPPC has asserted that it is necessary to resolve the matter before the election because voters are already submitting ballots by mail and need to identify donors to inform their decisions.
If the court sticks with its ruling, the state wants ARL to provide the FPPC its donor information for purposes of an audit by 4 p.m. Thursday.
Chang, a longtime government lawyer, was appointed to the bench in 2002 by then-Gov. Gray Davis after serving as his deputy legal affairs secretary.