Conservative Group Ignores Court Order Requiring It To Disclose Donors Behind TV Ad

Freedom Path ad

Freedom Path ad

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia District heard arguments Friday on an appeal in the Van Hollen v. Federal Election Commission case. A district judge ruled in March that outside groups engaging in signficant “electioneering communications” — ads run near federal elections that mention candidates but do not explicitly tell viewers to elect or defeat them — must disclose the donors funding their efforts. The impact of this ruling is limited, because most groups have exploited a loophole allowing them to circumvent the rules. Nevertheless, one group impacted by this decision has thus far failed to identify its big-money donors.

After years of failing to enforce disclosure rules mandated by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (commonly known as McCain-Feingold), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) successfully sued the Federal Election Commission, demanding that it do so. The FEC said in July that it would enforce the ruling, retroactive to the date it was issued. Until such time as a court overturns the ruling, the Commission ordered, all reports of electioneering communications made from March 30, 2012-onward would need to include disclosure of all donors to the group who contributed $1,000 or more. As ThinkProgress reported, that meant just one group would have to amend its earlier filings to name its donors: Freedom Path. An officer for that Utah-based 501(c)(4) committee, which spent thousands of dollars on ads praising Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Mitt Romney, told ThinkProgress at the time that his group would have to consult with their legal counsel before making a statement on whether it intends to comply with the new rule.

Six weeks later, Freedom Path has not yet amended its reports. The Federal Election Commission’s report analysis division has not contacted the group to ask for additional information. The Commission has taken no enforcement action against Freedom Path to date, though it does not make ongoing enforcement investigations public. As a result, voters cannot determine who was truly speaking in the group’s advertising, even though this disclosure is currently required by law. Freedom Path did not respond to multiple emails and phone messages asking for comment.

Just one group — Mayors Against Illegal Guns Action Fund — has reported a new electioneering communication expenditure since the FEC’s July order. It did identify its donors in its filings.

Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, told ThinkProgress that any group that’s making significant electioneering communications is “required by law to disclose their donors. All groups should be doing so… It’s important [and] the FEC needs to enforce that law.”

But, he added, “Equally as troubling, or perhaps even more troubling, is the fact that many [501](c)(4)s are now playing a game of inserting very brief mention of express candidate advocacy at the end of their ads seemingly for the purpose of avoiding donor disclosure… They game the system and maintain the anonymity our deep pocketed donors by simply inserting a few words at the end of the ad, where they’re barely noticeable.”

The DISCLOSE Act — which would have required donor disclosure for those more overt “independent expenditures” allowed by the controversial Citizens United ruling — was blocked by Senate Republicans in July, on two party-line votes.