Democrats Sue FEC to Force Disclosure of Donors' Names

By NY Times, NY Times - April 22, 2011

WASHINGTON — Unable to stanch the flow of corporate money to Republican causes, Democrats tried a new tack on Thursday by bringing a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission to force the disclosure of tens of millions of dollars in secret donations.

Representative Chris Van Hollen brought the lawsuit.

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The lawsuit seeks to close “a major loophole” that allows private companies and nonprofit groups to operate “under a veil of anonymity” in raising money for political work, said Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who brought the lawsuit along with lawyers for several liberal groups.

In another push for greater disclosure, President Obama is considering issuing an executive order that would require contractors with federal business to report their political donations. “His goal is transparency and accountability,” said the White House spokesman, Jay Carney.

A surge in corporate spending on political causes — the result of a Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case in January 2010 — became a major issue in the Congressional races that year and promises to be important in the 2012 presidential race.

Some Democrats attributed their loss of the House majority in November to the flood of largely anonymous spending by conservative groups. They have been unsuccessful in rolling back aspects of the Citizens United decision in the courts or in Congress, where Senate Republicans last year blocked a measure known as the Disclose Act, which Mr. Van Hollen sponsored.

As a result, Democrats are turning to other regulatory and executive branch measures — tactics that conservatives said Thursday smacked of political desperation as the presidential election nears.

“This is a sign of weakness by a group that’s afraid they’re going to lose, and lose big,” said Bradley A. Smith, a conservative lawyer and former Federal Election commissioner who leads the Center for Competitive Politics, a conservative advocacy group.

“Again and again, you see evidence that their real purpose is to try to shut down their political opposition,” Mr. Smith said. He and other conservatives argue that disclosure requirements pushed by Democrats amount to a chilling of free speech.

Mr. Van Hollen said in an interview that the lawsuit reflected an effort to use “all available options” to reduce the influence of anonymous corporate money.

In his lawsuit, Mr. Van Hollen noted that a number of the most prominent conservative nonprofit groups spent a total of more than $65 million on political activities in the 2010 races without disclosing any of the donors who financed their activities.

He singled out, among others, Crossroads GPS, a conservative group tied to Karl Rove, who was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush; Americans for Prosperity, financed by the billionaire brothers who lead Koch Industries; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has increased its political spending significantly in the face of threatened regulatory restrictions on American businesses.

The chamber charged Thursday that the lawsuit, along with Mr. Obama’s consideration of disclosure rules for contractors, were part of a “witch hunt” by Democrats meant to punish their “political foes.”

Specifically, the lawsuit seeks to reverse a 2007 Federal Election Commission regulation requiring companies and groups to name only those donors who gave at least $1,000 specifically for the purpose of financing political activity. Mr. Van Hollen said the agency overstepped its authority in enacting the regulation because it “gutted” disclosure requirements that Congress had put in place in 2002.

The commission declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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