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Another front in the disclosure wars

August 01, 2012|By Joseph Tanfani

WASHINGTON – A conservative group has filed a suit against the Federal Election Commission, a move intended to make sure it can run ads this summer that criticize the Obama administration’s energy policy without having to reveal who is paying for them.

The suit, filed in federal court in Iowa by the Hispanic Leadership Fund, is the latest counterpunch in the long back-and-forth legal war over the torrent of undisclosed money flowing into this year’s elections. And it’s the latest consequence of  the dysfunction at the FEC, which last month deadlocked on the question of whether similar ads – which would show the White House and use President Obama’s voice – are clearly aimed at defeating the president in November.

“The FEC can’t seem to give us an answer,” said Jason Torchinsky, attorney for the Hispanic Leadership Fund, the small Washington-area group that filed the lawsuit in a federal court in Iowa. So, the organization is seeking an answer from the federal courts.

In past elections, groups like this were able to run these types of ads without having to disclose the source of their money. But in March, a federal judge in Washington ruled that groups that run certain types of issue advertising would have to disclose where the contributions came from.

These ads are called “electioneering communications” – TV spots that refer to “clearly identified” federal candidates, without explicitly calling for their election or defeat. If they air within 60 days of a general election and within 30 days of a primary, they trigger disclosure rules. Since the party conventions count as primaries, the “electioneering” window for ads mentioning Obama begins on Saturday.

“Tell the White House it’s time for an American energy plan … that actually works for America,” goes one of the Hispanic Leadership Fund’s proposed ads.

The ad shouldn’t count as electioneering, the suit argues: “The White House refers to the government building located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” and the employees who work there, not Obama. The group, which advocates for conservative causes, says that forcing it to reveal its donors would violate its 1st Amendment rights.

“There’s nothing in the FEC’s regulations that prohibit them from speaking,” said Paul Ryan, senior counsel at the pro-transparency Campaign Legal Center. “All that is required from them is disclosure.”

Torchinsky first went to the FEC seeking answers on these ads on behalf of another group, the American Future Fund, which is based in Iowa. The president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, which also filed another suit against the FEC, says he’s happy to take up the cause.

“Iowa has a pretty rapidly growing Hispanic population,” said Mario H. Lopez. “We just feel it’s a good place to sort of spread this message of protecting the 1st Amendment.”

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