SACRAMENTO (AP) — A California judge signaled that she planned to approve a request Wednesday from the state's political watchdog agency to investigate the donors behind an $11 million campaign contribution from an Arizona nonprofit.
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne Chang said in a tentative ruling that voters would suffer if the California Fair Political Practices Commission is not allowed to investigate the group, Americans for Responsible Leadership.
Chang did not immediately approve the request after hearing arguments in court Wednesday and did not set a timetable for issuing a final decision. Even if she does side with the California campaign agency, it seems unlikely that voters will know the source of the money before Election Day because a series of appeals and legal procedures are sure to follow.
The Phoenix-based group gave the $11 million earlier this month to the Small Business Action Committee PAC, which opposes Gov. Jerry Brown's November tax initiative and supports a separate initiative that would greatly restrict unions' ability to raise money for political purposes.
The judge's tentative ruling, issued Tuesday, said the Fair Political Practices Commission has the authority to audit the group's records before the Nov. 6 election to determine whether any California election laws apply.
The commission argues that as a major donor giving more than $10,000, the Arizona nonprofit is required to file a pre-election statement at least 12 days before an election and notify any recipients if the money was earmarked for a specific political committee. If any of the money was earmarked, the Small Business Action Committee PAC would be required to disclose the donors, commission attorneys said.
Chang wrote in her tentative order that "irreparable injury to the people of the state of California will flow from a refusal to grant the preliminary injunction requested."
If her ruling is made final, the nonprofit would have 24 hours to comply with the commission's request to review its financial documents, although a spokesman has said the group is likely to appeal.
Jason Torchinsky, an attorney representing Americans for Responsible Leadership, argued Wednesday that the commission's action is politically motivated and said the group is being singled out because it supports conservative positions.
"If your speech is unpopular, expect immediate reprisals," he said.
Three Phoenix-area men are listed on documents as directors of Americans for Responsible Leadership, which was formed last year: Steven Nickolas, president of Silver Sky Capital; Robert Graham, president of RG Capital Investors; and Eric Wnuck, an unsuccessful Arizona congressional candidate in 2010.
The group has given more than $1 million to two initiatives on the Arizona ballot, one that would raise the statewide sales tax to provide more money for schools and another that would modify the state's primary system.
In California, the campaign commission's chairwoman, Ann Ravel, has said her agency needs to know whether donors to Americans for Responsible Leadership intended for their money to be used for political campaigns in California. If so, that would trigger the state's disclosure requirements.
Ravel, who was appointed by the governor, said Wednesday that the Arizona group is using stalling tactics to avoid complying with the law before Election Day, but her agency will aggressively pursue the case, even as millions of Californians have already turned in their vote-by-mail ballots.
Because ballot initiatives are often so complex, Ravel said, "the issue is who is making the contribution in favor of or against, and that often sways voters."
The nonprofit has argued that the contribution is protected by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, but the judge said that was irrelevant to the current case. The group also argued that it should not be subject to an audit until after the election.
The money coming from the Arizona-based group to attack Proposition 30 is just the latest problem for the Democratic governor, who has faced much stronger opposition to his initiative than he originally anticipated. The initiative, which would help close the state's budget deficit by increasing the state sales tax and income taxes on those who make more than $250,000 a year, was failing to achieve majority support in the latest public opinion survey.