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After winning right to spend, political groups fight for secrecy

Conservatives who said disclosure of donors would prevent corruption now are attacking such rules, citing fears of harassment.

June 26, 2012|By Joseph Tanfani and Melanie Mason, Washington Bureau
  • High-profile donors could face bullying and harassment from liberals out to “muzzle” their opponents, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a recent speech.
High-profile donors could face bullying and harassment from liberals… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)

WASHINGTON — During their long campaign to loosen rules on campaign money, conservatives argued that there was a simpler way to prevent corruption: transparency. Get rid of limits on contributions and spending, they said, but make sure voters know where the money is coming from.

Today, with those fundraising restrictions largely removed, many conservatives have changed their tune. They now say disclosure could be an enemy of free speech.

High-profile donors could face bullying and harassment from liberals out to "muzzle" their opponents, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a recent speech.

Corporations could be subject to boycotts and pickets, warned the Wall Street Journal editorial page this spring.

Democrats "want to intimidate people into not giving to these conservative efforts," said Republican strategist Karl Rove on Fox News. "I think it's shameful."

Rove helped found American Crossroads, a "super PAC," and Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit group that does not reveal its donors.

"Disclosure is the one area where [conservatives] haven't won," said Richard Briffault, an election law professor at Columbia Law School. "This is the next frontier for them."

A handful of conservative foundations, themselves financed with millions in anonymous funding, have been fighting legal battles from Maine to Hawaii to dismantle disclosure rules and other limits on campaign spending.

One group, the Center for Individual Freedom based in Alexandria, Va., has spent millions on attack ads against Democratic congressmen and state judicial candidates. It also has sued to block laws and court rulings that would have required disclosure of the source of the money for the ads.

Jeffrey Mazzella, the center's president, declined to comment on the lawsuits or discuss the group's donors, saying the center lays out its positions in detail on its website and in news releases.

Bradley A. Smith, a Republican and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, is among those whose views have changed on disclosure. In 2003, he endorsed disclosing donors as a way to discourage corruption by "exposing potential or actual conflicts of interest."

But later, he said, he concluded that disclosure requirements could be burdensome for citizen groups. And now that campaign reports are posted online, he added, people can easily identify and target their opponents.

The business community began fighting disclosure in 2000, when theU.S. Chamber of Commerce, after buying ads supporting candidates for the Mississippi Supreme Court, successfully challenged the state's requirements on revealing donors.

The anti-disclosure campaign was joined by libertarian legal advocacy centers, such as the Institute for Justice, founded in 1991 with seed money from trusts controlled by billionaire brothers Charles andDavid H. Koch. Starting in 2005, the institute began sponsoring studies that argued disclosure laws were ensnaring ordinary citizens in red tape and inviting reprisals.

Then came California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. After the initiative passed in 2008, some same-sex marriage advocates used the state's campaign finance data to publicly identify donors who supported the ban. Proposition 8 supporters claimed they were subject to harassing phone calls and e-mails, vandalism and protests.

In arguing against disclosure rules, conservatives even reach back to the civil rights era, when authorities in Alabama tried to identify members of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled those names could remain secret.

A leader of the crusade against disclosure has been James Bopp Jr., a libertarian lawyer based in Terre Haute, Ind. The original lawyer in the Citizens United case, in which the Supreme Court eased restrictions on independent political spending, he has brought suits to attack campaign rules in at least 30 states. In one of those suits, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled in Bopp's favor and eliminated a Montana ban on corporate contributions.

Bopp and others say there's nothing wrong with forcing candidates and political parties to reveal their donors, at least the larger ones. But for private citizens and independent groups, "the price of disclosure is too high," he said.

So far, the anti-disclosure arguments haven't won much support on the Supreme Court.

Starting with a key decision in 1976, the court has stood behind the principle that such rules help prevent corruption and keep voters informed. In the 2010 Citizens United case, an 8-1 majority affirmed disclosure rules. And later that year, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia was even more forceful in backing transparency.

"Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed," Scalia wrote in a case involving petition signatures in Washington state.

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