Court upholds FEC rule on disclosure requirements

By Sam Hananel
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - A federal appeals court last Thursday dealt a setback to campaign finance reform advocates in a ruling about who pays for political ads.

The ruling upheld a Federal Election Commission regulation that narrows disclosure requirements for corporations and labor groups paying for ads that run close to Election Day.

The regulation says groups running the ads only have to reveal donors who contribute for the express purpose of paying for the ads. That means donors who choose not to say how they want their money used can remain anonymous.

Opponents say the rule undermines Congress' goal of letting voters know which donors are trying to influence elections.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed a lower court decision that threw out the regulation last year. The ruling comes on the six-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which lifted limits on political spending by corporations and labor unions.

Writing for the panel, Judge Janice Rogers Brown said the court gave the FEC wide latitude to interpret Congress' mandate. Just because one of the purposes of campaign reform laws was broader disclosure "doesn't mean that anything less than maximal disclosure is subversive," she said.

Rogers said the FEC had a valid concern that some contributors to a union or corporation's general treasury may not support the group's political ads. She agreed with the agency's reasoning that a rule requiring more disclosure could mislead voters as to who really supports the ads and would be too burdensome for the groups to disclose.

The regulation was challenged in 2011 by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who was joined by advocacy groups including Public Citizen and Democracy 21.

Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said the ruling "means the FEC can continue with flawed regulations that allow secret contributions to be laundered into federal elections in contradiction to the law."

Wertheimer said his group has not decided whether to appeal.

An FEC spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on litigation.

Thomas Kirby, a lawyer for the Center for Individual Freedom, a conservative group that intervened in the case, said efforts to force financial disclosures discourage free speech, invade privacy and may mislead the public.

The court rejected the argument that "merely mentioning a candidate's name should require a speaker to disclose all substantial contributions it received over the prior two years, even if the contributions had nothing to do with political speech," Kirby said.

Published: Mon, Jan 25, 2016