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Profiles in courage: Funder of attack ads wants secrecy for donors
By JIM WALLS
An advocacy group that spent $152,000 last month to help dump Georgia Congressman Jim Marshall wants to keep the identity of its donors secret.
But it can’t, at least when it spends money to influence state and local campaigns, executive secretary Stacey Kalberman of the State Ethics Commission wrote in a draft advisory opinion released Friday. In Georgia, she wrote, any political spending within 30 days of a political primary of 60 days of a general election must be disclosed to the public.
If accepted by the commission at its meeting next month, the opinion would expand Georgia’s requirements for disclosure by so-called “independent committees,” which have proliferated since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this year in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. The advisory opinion would not cover spending for or against Marshall or other candidates for federal office, which is regulated by the FEC.
The Center for Individual Freedom, led by CEO Jeffrey L. Mazzella, asked the ethics commission in August whether it could avoid disclosing its finances if it did not expressly advocate a candidate’s election or defeat.
The commission held in 2001 that groups making independent expenditures need not register or file disclosure reports unless they expressly advocated the election or defeat of a candidate. The standard for determining such was taken directly from a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Buckley v. Valeo, Kalberman wrote:
In Buckley, the Supreme Court narrowly construed the independent-expenditure provision of the Federal Election Law to cover only express advocacy of the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate for federal office by use of such “magic words” as ‘vote for,’ ‘elect,’ . . . ‘vote against,’ ‘defeat,’ ‘reject.’
Case law since then, particularly Citizens United, allows states to require disclosure for any “electioneering communication,” regardless of whether it meets the Buckley standard, according to Kalberman:
Our standard shall include any communication that refers to a clearly identified candidate for a public office in the State of Georgia and is made within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The term “clearly identified candidate” shall mean (a) the name of the candidate involved appears; (b) a photograph or drawing of the candidate appears; or (c) the identity of the candidate is apparent by unambiguous reference.
Caleb P. Burns, an attorney for the center, argued last week that disclosing the center’s donors could impinge on its right to free speech, since donors might refrain from giving money if their identities were known.
The center spent $115,580 on Oct. 14 and another $37,034.55 on Oct. 23 to produce and broadcast TV ads attacking Marshall’s support for the federal stimulus package and bank bailouts, disclosure reports show.
Those ads, and similar messages attacking nine other Democratic members of Congress, cost the center $2.5 million in October, according to those disclosures and an earlier Oct. 13 report. Federal law, while mandating reports on the media buys, does not require the center to say where it got the money to pay for them.
Overall, out-of-state groups spent $776,000 attacking Marshall this fall, the Macon Telegraph reported Sunday.
Marshall lost to Republican Austin Scott last week, and six of the center’s other targets lost their re-election bids as well. The three who survived — Reps. Heath Shuler and Larry Kissell of North Carolina, and Rep. Ben Chandler of Kentucky — all hail from tobacco-growing states.
There’s some irony there, since the Center for Individual Freedom got its start with funding from Big Tobacco.
William Thomas Humber, the center’s founder and its president from 1998 through 2008, was formerly president of the tobacco industry-funded National Smokers Alliance and, before that, oversaw public affairs campaigns for The Tobacco Institute.
The NSA disbanded in 2001 and transferred an undisclosed portion of its assets to the center, which was housed in the same building in Alexandria, Va. Humber had previously asked the Lorillard Tobacco Co. for funding for the center, but it is not known if he succeeded.