California Democrats seek to shine light on mystery donors

By Steven Harmon, Bay Area News Group
Oakland Tribune, December 20th, 2012

SACRAMENTO -- Democratic legislators are making it known that they won't soon forget the mystery $11 million donation laundered through three out-of-state political groups into California ballot battles last month.

Two bills introduced Thursday would put sunshine on political groups that pour big money into state campaigns. One, AB 45, would give the state's political watchdog agency explicit authority to force anonymous outside groups to reveal their donors. The other, SB 52, would require the top funders behind political advertisements to list themselves in the ads.

And now that they have a super majority in both chambers of the Legislature, Democrats will stand a better chance of revising the Political Reform Act, which requires a two-thirds vote. Last year, they were stymied in several attempts at campaign finance reform.

"We all know that where money comes from and who it's given to is a relevant factor in making a judgment about the merits of a particular issue or particular candidate," said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who wrote AB 45.

The U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which erased limits on political spending for corporations and unions, "essentially legalized money laundering" and limited the public's ability to know where the money is coming from, Dickinson said.

A month before November's elections, an Arizona group funneled $11 million to the California-based Small Business Action Committee, which was running campaigns against Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's tax-hike measure, and for Proposition 32, the measure that would have curbed labor's collection of political action dues from members.

Ann Ravel, the chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, fought to find the donors behind the mystery money, and an 11th-hour ruling by the state Supreme Court revealed two nonprofit groups with ties to Republican strategist Karl Rove and the billionaire oil tycoon brothers, David and Charles Koch.

Ravel said her agency is continuing to investigate who were the actual individual donors to the two groups, Americans for Job Security and Center to Protect Patient Rights. In a similar case, election watchdog groups in Washington, D.C., are urging the U.S. Justice Department and Federal Election Commission to investigate more than $12 million that passed through two unknown companies in Tennessee to a tea party group, which spent the money on congressional races.

SB 52, the DISCLOSE Act, would require that the top three contributors to political ads identify themselves on the ads and on the campaign's website. Sens. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, are its co-authors.

"The only way to stop this covert financing of campaigns is to require the simple and clear disclosure of the top three funders of political ads so voters can make well-informed decisions at the ballot box," Leno said.

A similar bill died in the Senate last year.

"After seeing billions of dollars flow into elections across our country after the Citizens United decision, we need the DISCLOSE act now more than ever," Hill said.

DISCLOSE is the acronym for Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections.

Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101. Follow him at Read the Political Blotter at

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