Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Lawsuit to Reveal Conservative Group Donors Can Proceed

October 3, 2018 Ken Doyle
  • Watchdog group has filed `citizen suit’ to force disclosure
  • Organization has spent $65 million on GOP candidates

A campaign finance watchdog group can proceed with a lawsuit seeking disclosure of donors to the conservative nonprofit American Action Network, which has spent almost $65 million aiding Republican candidates.

A federal judge in Washington gave the go-ahead Monday to the case filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. It is among the first “citizen suits” allowed to enforce federal campaign finance laws, according to the group.

The group filed suit against the conservative organization earlier this year after the Federal Election Commission failed to take enforcement action to force the disclosure. The FEC didn’t act because of a deadlocked vote of Democratic and Republican commissioners.

Judge Christopher R. Cooper of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia set a schedule for the case calling for briefing to be completed by the end to the year. Cooper’s order followed a denial last month by the federal appeals court in Washington of American Action Network’s motion to delay the case.

Center-Right Support

AAN, headed by former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), describes itself as an “action tank” that promotes “center-right policies based on the principles of freedom, limited government, American exceptionalism, and strong national security.”

The group has reported $44 million in direct spending to aid Republican congressional candidates since 2010, according to a recent report on “dark money” by the nonprofit Issue One.

AAN hasn’t reported any direct election spending during the current election cycle but it has contributed $21 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-political action committee aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders.

The conservative group has never reported any of its donors to the FEC. Tax reports have indicated AAN has received money from corporations and trade associations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“If you have the guts to play in politics or attack a candidate running for office, you should have the courage to put your name on it,” said Nick Penniman, the head of Issue One, which lobbies for disclosure requirements. “Dark money groups and anonymous donors behind them that endlessly bombard Americans with television ads spouting half-truths and outright lies do a disservice to voters.”

Disclosure Guidance Promised

Developments in the AAN case followed court rulings in a separate disclosure suit involving another conservative nonprofit, Crossroads GPS.

The Supreme Court last month let stand a federal district court order striking down an FEC rule cited by Crossroads and other nonprofits to keep their donors secret.

Conservative Group Loses Supreme Court Bid for Donor Secrecy

The ruling means nonprofits spending money to influence federal elections may have to start revealing donors in the next round of quarterly reports due to the FEC later this month. Details of what must be disclosed by whom remain unclear.

FEC officials have said the agency is working on new guidelines for disclosure by campaign spending groups, but Democratic and Republican commissioners have yet to agree on what to say.

The case is CREW v. AAN, D.D.C., 18-954, order10/1/18

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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