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Conservative group seeks FEC approval to keep donors secret

May 01, 2012|By Matea Gold
  • A conservative group funding ads attacking President Obama has asked the FEC if it can avoid disclosing the names of its donors if it avoids referring to the president by name.
A conservative group funding ads attacking President Obama has asked the… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — A conservative group that plans to run a barrage of television ads attacking President Obama has asked the Federal Election Commission if it can avoid disclosing its donors by not naming him explicitly in its commercials.

American Future Fund, a tax-exempt free-market advocacy group based in Iowa, wants to air a series of spots hammering Obama’s energy and healthcare policies within 30 days of upcoming primary elections and 60 days of the November election, the group’s lawyers wrote to the FEC last month.

Ads that air in that time period and refer to a clearly identified federal candidate but stop short of calling for his or her election or defeat are considered “electioneering communication.” Until recently, the FEC required independent groups that run such spots to disclose only donors that gave money earmarked for the ads -- offering a way around the more rigorous disclosure required of political committees, which have to name all their contributors.

That changed in late March, when a federal district court judge in Washington ruled in Van Hollen vs. Federal Election Commission that the FEC’s limited disclosure requirements of electioneering communications contradicted Congress’ aim to increase transparency.

The FEC decided last week not to appeal, but two independent groups are seeking to have the ruling overturned. Until the case is resolved or the FEC issues new guidelines, the district court’s ruling has made the campaign finance landscape more uncertain, said Rick Hasen, a professor of campaign finance at UC Irvine.

“What the court has done is thrown out the old rules,” he said. “But there are no new rules to come in place other than the statute itself.”

In the meantime, the possibility that the court’s ruling could stand has sent outside groups scrambling for ways to avoid revealing their financial backers. The request for an FEC advisory opinion by American Future Fund -- which has already spent millions of dollars running ads criticizing the Obama administration this year -- speaks to the creative measures some groups may take to avoid identifying their donors.

In its letter to the FEC,  lawyers for the advocacy group wrote that it “wishes to speak out on issues of national policy significance with minimal government intrusion into its affairs.”

The group offered a series of proposed ad scripts for approval that refer to “the administration,” “the government” and “the White House,” but do not use the term “President Obama.”

“Tell the White House it’s time for an American energy plan that actually works for America,” concludes one spot.

One script includes a clip of Obama’s voice saying, “We must end our dependence on foreign oil.”

But American Future Fund's lawyers wrote that the ad “will not identify the speaker in any way. Only those familiar with President Obama’s voice will know that it is President Obama speaking.”  

Another spot would compare Obama’s healthcare reform plan to one in Massachusetts signed into law by then-Gov. Mitt Romney. “National healthcare: Romneycare’s evil twin,” a line in the script reads. The advocacy group asked the FEC if such a reference would be the equivalent of referring to Romney, noting that he vetoed parts of the law that were approved by the Massachusetts Legislature.

The FEC has until mid-June to repond to the group’s request for an advisory opinion.

Melanie Mason contributed to this report.

Original source: Conservative group seeks FEC approval to keep donors secret

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