California Supreme Court orders Arizona nonprofit to release donor records

The Sacramento BeeNovember 5, 2012 

— The California Supreme Court on Sunday ordered an obscure Arizona nonprofit to submit its donation records immediately to state regulators, but it remained unclear whether voters would know the source of the contribution before Tuesday's election.

Phoenix-based Americans for Responsible Leadership gave $11 million in October to a business campaign committee opposing Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative, Proposition 30, and supporting a measure that would restrict union dues collection, Proposition 32.

California's highest court issued its unanimous 7-0 decision after a rare Sunday telephone conference and gave ARL just under an hour to comply.

The group did not immediately submit the records. Instead, it unsuccessfully asked the state court to extend its compliance window to 9 a.m. today as it sought a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the state's Fair Political Practices Commission and Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Harris charged that the group had "continued to subvert and tried to delay this process, and keep voters in the dark."

The state court denied ARL's request shortly before 6 p.m., and the group said late Sunday it was in contact with the FPPC in an attempt to comply with the order.

"While we are working to deliver the records, we still believe that the FPPC does not have the authority to take such action and have filed a request for immediate stay with the United States Supreme Court," Matt Ross, spokesman for ARL's legal team, said in a written statement.

The FPPC had asked the Supreme Court to force the Arizona group to turn over emails and transactions data behind the donation, whose specific donors the group has never disclosed. The watchdog agency won a trial court decision last week, but ARL did not have to turn over its records because it challenged the ruling and won support from the 3rd District Court of Appeal to withhold the information for now.

In a letter Sunday to the California Supreme Court, ARL said it was filing an emergency request with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in the 2010 "Citizens United" case that dealt with organizations' ability to spend in campaigns.

The organization's attorneys charged that state regulators appointed by Brown were unfairly targeting ARL because its contribution challenged the governor's initiative. They pointed to a recent comment by Brown at an NAACP luncheon that appeared to compare ARL to the Ku Klux Klan.

"This proceeding raises critical First Amendment issues regarding the ability of an organization to freely associate and speak on vital election-related matters without reprisal by government officials opposed to their view, during the midst of the election and in contravention of the government's own investigative procedures," wrote attorney Thad A. Davis.

The FPPC wants to review donation records to determine before Tuesday's election whether ARL violated state rules requiring nonprofits to disclose donors if their money was earmarked for a specific initiative. If the FPPC finds a violation, it remains to be seen whether there is enough time to invoke administrative or legal procedures that would force ARL to disclose its donors by Tuesday.

ARL is directed by lesser-known Arizona GOP activists, and the group hired attorneys from a Virginia-based law firm with long-standing Republican National Committee ties

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