An Arizona-based group trying to affect ballot measures in California has no constitutional right to hide its donors, a judge in that state ruled Wednesday.
Judge Shelleyanne Chang rejected arguments by attorneys for Americans for Responsible Leadership that producing the list for a California regulatory board would violate both its First Amendment rights as well as those of those who gave to the group with the understanding that their names would not be made public.
Chang acknowledged that last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case does permit outside groups to try to influence elections. But she said nothing in that ruling prevents the government from requiring that the sources of the cash be disclosed.
The decision most immediately affects the $11 million that the organization, headed by former Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams of Mesa, donated to try to kill Proposition 30, a proposal by California Gov. Jerry Brown to impose a temporary tax hike on those earning more than $250,000 a year, along with a quarter-cent sales tax increase. Americans for Responsible Leadership also is helping to fund Proposition 32 to ban corporate and labor donations to candidates.
California law empowers the state's Fair Political Practices Commission to audit the books of those who try to influence campaigns and, if appropriate, make public the names of donors.
But a donor list also could finally shed some light on who is behind the $750,000 that Americans for Responsible Leadership has put into the campaign to kill Arizona's Proposition 204 to impose a permanent one-cent surcharge on the state sales tax, largely to fund education. That's because Arizona, has no disclosure laws similar to those in California..
The same organization has pumped another $415,000 into the bid to defeat Proposition 121. That measure would create an open primary system where all candidates run against each other for nomination and the top two face off in the general election regardless of party affiliation.
Whether any of that will be available to voters in Arizona or California before Tuesday's election, however, remains unclear.
"We have asserted all along that the FPPC does not have the authority to issue an audit in advance of the election,'' said Matt Ross, spokesman for Americans for Responsible Leadership and its legal team. "We continue to believe so and will appeal this case.''
That appeal could delay the organization turning over its books.
Even once California regulators get the donor list, it could take some time for them to review it and determine whether what Americans for Responsible Leadership is doing fits within the disclosure statutes.
But Chang, in her order, said it's necessary to start the audit process -- and soon.
"Without the FPPC's audit and review of appropriate records, potential disclosure of information prior to the general election critical to the public in deciding how to vote for Proposition 30 and 32 may not be made,'' she wrote. And Change said that if the audit determines Americans for Repsonsible Leadership has violated disclosure requirements, "irreparable harm has occurred and continues to occur as each day passes and voters continue to cast their votes without information that may influence their votes.''
The legal fight has the support of California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
"We are, together with the FPPC, committed to getting to the truth, and getting it now,'' she said in a prepared statement.
The latest documents on file with the Arizona Corporation Commission show Adams, who was speaker of the state House before an unsuccessful bid earlier this year for Congress, is listed as president.
Other directors include Robert Graham, who owns Scottsdale-based RG Capital, an investment firm. He also is running to be chairman of the Arizona Republican Party.
Also on the list are Eric Wnuck, another unsuccessful Republican congressional candidate, and Steve Nickolas whose web site says he is involved in the bottled beverage industry. Both list Scottsdale addresses.