Ruling may force advocacy groups to reveal donors

  • Article by: MATEA GOLD , Tribune Washington Bureau
  • Updated: May 15, 2012 - 11:23 PM

A federal appeals court decision on "electioneering ads" affects trade associations and an array of nonprofit groups.

WASHINGTON - Advocacy groups spending millions of dollars in the 2012 campaign are now faced with the prospect of having to reveal the donors who have been secretly financing their efforts after a federal appellate court panel refused to block a lower court order requiring the move.

In a 2-1 decision issued Monday, a U.S. Court of Appeals panel in Washington declined to stay a ruling by a federal judge requiring organizations that run election-related TV ads to disclose their donors.

The court's decision was a significant victory for campaign finance reform advocates who have been fighting against the deluge of secret money that has flooded the political landscape following the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010.

Until the appeal of the current case is decided sometime this fall, any group that runs a type of election-related ad known as "electioneering communications" will have to disclose all of its donors since the beginning of 2011. The disclosure issue involves broadcast ads that don't expressly advocate for or against a candidate running for office.

The stakes are high for trade associations and an array of well-financed nonprofit groups that planned to pump millions of dollars more into such TV commercials.

Election law lawyers expect most groups will now try to find alternative methods of communicating rather than reveal the sources of their funding. But just the possibility that the curtain will be pulled back to reveal who has been driving campaign-related ads has buoyed reform advocates.

"It's the first major breakthrough," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the group Democracy 21.

Chuck Darrell, spokesman for Minnesota for Marriage, a group pushing for voters to adopt a constitutional amendment this fall banning same-sex marriage, said of the decision: "It doesn't have any impact on us. The decision is dealing with issue ads, not campaign ads. We are fully disclosing our contributors as required by law." Darrell added: "As a legal matter, the decision does not impact Minnesota in any event since it didn't occur in the federal district covering Minnesota."

The case, brought by Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland against the Federal Election Commission, challenged a 2007 FEC regulation that allowed limited disclosure by groups that engage in electioneering communications. Those are ads that refer to federal candidates but stop short of advocating for their election or defeat and air 30 days before a primary and 60 days before the general election.

Staff writer Baird Helgeson contributed to this report.

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