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Continued: Judge asked to overturn state law on disclosing corporate donations

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 20, 2010 - 11:30 PM

In the wake of the uproar over Target's spending on politics, a federal judge was asked Friday by abortion opponents and other backers of GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer to block a state law that requires such disclosures by corporations.

The disclosure law creates unnecessary burdens on companies and forces them to reveal more than needed for accountability, attorney Joseph La Rue told U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank in St. Paul.

"We're saying the entire scheme is unconstitutional," La Rue said, arguing the disclosure requirements are so burdensome they amount to a ban on free speech.

But Minnesota Solicitor General Alan Gilbert said the law is constitutional and essential to an informed electorate. He accused corporate opponents of "attempting to gut the disclosure requirement."

Frank said he would rule before Sept. 20 on a motion by Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life and two other groups seeking a preliminary injunction to block the law while the merits of the case are considered. Sept. 20 is one day before a new round of public reports is due on the corporate spending, which is independent of candidate campaigns.

Both sides say an injunction could allow corporations to skip that reporting deadline and another just before the November elections and spend unlimited money on political advertising without needing to disclose any of it.

"There will be no disclosure when Target, 3M, Cargill, whoever, decides to make independent expenditures in October," said Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Dan Rogan.

At the heart of the dispute is a law passed this year by the Legislature requiring reports on corporate spending for or against candidates. The law requires two reports to be filed before the primary and two more before the general election.

One of the pre-primary reports showed that Target, Best Buy and other corporations gave money to MN Forward, a pro-business group that is buying ads on behalf of Emmer.

The disclosures angered groups at odds with Emmer's opposition to same-sex marriage, and they launched a blistering attack on the companies.

While the effort to overturn the law began before the controversy, a ruling that restricts disclosure could make it easier for groups like MN Forward to raise money from corporations nervous about a public backlash.

Both sides and the judge made references to the Target controversy during Friday's hearing.

Gilbert said the public discussion about the Target spending -- it gave $150,000 to MN Forward -- showed "the system is working" in providing awareness of how corporate money is being spent in politics.

When LaRue talked about the impact of the disclosure requirements and said, "Let's forget about Target. Let's talk about a small corporation," the judge interjected, "Target would probably be hoping to forget about it in the future."

Corporations were long barred in Minnesota and elsewhere from spending their revenues on ads or other material to elect or defeat candidates, although labor unions could do so in Minnesota and some other states.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this year that such prohibitions were an infringement on free speech. But the Supreme Court also said states could require some disclosure of such spending.

La Rue said requiring a total of four reports before primary and general elections goes too far. He suggested fewer reports and requiring disclosure only when the money is spent on an ad or other material rather than when a corporation makes a donation to a group like MN Forward.

After the hearing, he said the objection to the reporting requirements is "not just about paperwork, it's all about the government knowing what you're up to all the time."

But Rogan said the bid for an injunction is "really an attempt to block all the sunshine and let corporate independent expenditures to occur in this election season in the dark."

Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) was joined in the federal lawsuit by the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and Coastal Travel Enterprises. They are for-profit or nonprofit corporations.

The MCCL and Coastal planned to spend money advocating support for Emmer. The Taxpayers League wants to spend money supporting Republican Paul Gazelka for state senator. Gazelka defeated fellow Republican Paul Koering of Fort Ripley, who is gay, in the primary this month.

In addition to opposing the disclosure requirements on independent political spending, the plaintiffs seek to overturn prohibitions on corporations contributing directly to campaigns and parties.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

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