A Sacramento judge has scheduled a hearing, one week before Election Day, to determine whether an Arizona political nonprofit must hand over information about the identity of donors behind an $11 million campaign check.
The ruling made on Thursday comes after the state's campaign finance watchdog agency sued Americans for Responsible Leadership, a group whose big donation to a conservative California political action committee is being described as one of the largest anonymous donations in state history.
"We think the public has a right to know who made contributions in California," said Ann Ravel, chair of the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
A Sacramento attorney retained by the Arizona group, Bradley Benbrook, declined comment to reporters after Thursday's court hearing.
But during the hearing, Benbrook accused FPPC's Ravel of making it clear during multiple media interviews that the commission had already made up its mind about whether the donation triggered state disclosure regulations.
"There's no basis to conclude, or feel any comfort, that providing these documents will do anything but land in the L.A. Times within hours," said Benbrook in court.
But in the court filing, Americans for Responsible Leadership argued that there's no justification for state officials to demand action prior to Election Day. And the group made it clear why they believe the FPPC is pursuing the issue of donor disclosure:
"This motion is the result of intense political pressure to have the FPPC 'do something' and keep the campaign issue alive."
Campaign records filed both in Arizona and with the Federal Elections Commission do little to offer any clarity about the group -- a 501(c)(4) "social welfare" organization -- or its backers.
Since March, those records show about $1.76 million in political contributions, with most of that ($1.2 million) being spent to oppose two Arizona ballot measures -- one to extend an expiring state sales tax, the other to create a California-style top two primary system.
In other words, the October 15 donation to California's Small Business Action Committee PAC is more than six times larger than the group's entire political spending in recent months.
"The size of the contribution, the fact that this non-profit has never participated in California politics before, makes us think that perhaps we need to get more information," said FPPC chair Ravel.
As we reported last week, the question is whether the Arizona group's money falls under a little-used, but decade old, interpretation of California campaign rules -- namely, that an out of state group can make a single donation to a California campaign and not disclose its donors... under the assumption those donors wouldn't have expected to be revealed under California's rules.
FPPC investigators are now raising questions as to whether Americans for Responsible Leadership's $11 million donation qualifies for that exemption; the group's court filing maintains that it does.
"ARL has solicited contributions from various sources from across the country," says the court document in quoting a Wednesday letter to the FPPC. "No donor had a reason to know that ARL would make a contribution" to the California No on 30/Yes on 32 committee.
The mystery of the money's origins has become part of the campaign stump speech of Gov. Jerry Brown and labor unions in their efforts for, and against, the two initiatives. And the leader of the California conservative PAC that accepted the money has argued that other non-California donations have not been forced to offer more transparency. Joel Fox also says the ruckus masks fact that Brown and organized labor have raised far more money in this election cycle.
The Arizona group's donation, and its rules under California law, will face a more detailed hearing in Sacramento Superior Court next Tuesday, October 30, at 9:00 a.m.