A conservative Arizona political group is likely going to have to turn over confidential documents about its donors, under a tentative ruling issued late Tuesday by a Sacramento judge.
At issue is the $11 million contribution by Americans for Responsible Leadership to a California political action committee trying to help pass Proposition 32 and kill Proposition 30. State officials have called the cash "the largest known anonymous donation in the history of California politics," and want to audit the group's books to see whether the identities of the donors must be made public.
The tentative ruling by Judge Shellyanne W.L. Chang rejected all of the arguments made by the Arizona group -- organized as a 501 (c)(4) and thus exempt from most donor disclosure laws -- in its attempt to block the investigation of the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).
The group's own court filing on Monday invoked the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court and the freedom of groups like theirs "to exercise their constitutional rights."
Judge Chang's tentative ruling says, in effect, that the landmark case doesn't apply.
"The FPPC is not seeking to restrict, and this court is not limiting, expenditures by ARL," wrote Chang. "Nothing in Citizens United prohibits this state-mandated disclosure."
The state regulation in question centers on whether the anonymous backers of the Arizona group knew, or didn't know, that their money was going to be spent on California politics. If they didn't, state regulations generally allow a one-time anonymous donation. If they did, though, state rules require donor information to be released.
Gov. Jerry Brown, as well as backers of his initiative and the anti-Prop 32 campaign, have been using the $11 million mystery to try to paint opponents as being funded by national conservative powerhouses.
Brown himself has reveled in the controversy in recent days. "Let's not let Arizona bandits steal our democracy," he wrote in a late fundraising appeal for Prop 30.
The group's court filing had tried to assert that state officials don't have the authority to do an audit before the election. But the judge is poised to officially reject that argument when court convenes on Wednesday afternoon.
And while some believe the donors will have to be made public, both state campaign finance officials and the judge's ruling make clear that may not happen. In fact, they both take great pains to point out that the audit would not trigger disclosure -- but rather, would be to simply be to see whether those donors should be publicly revealed under state law.
A newly appointed Sacramento spokesman for the Arizona group has promised a statement in response to the ruling, which will be posted here when it comes in.
UPDATE 6:35 p.m. This case is likely to go on, based on the following statement from Matt Ross, a Sacramento based spokesman for the Americans for Responsible Leadership legal team: "We are disappointed in the court's tentative ruling. We believe that the state has not proven its case and that the FPPC does not have the authority to issue an audit in advance of the election. Depending upon tomorrow's final outcome, there is a high likelihood that Americans for Responsible Leadership will appeal."