Judge orders Idaho group to disclose secret donors

From The Spokesman-Review

BOISE – A secretive group that underwrote more than $200,000 in TV campaign commercials in favor of three Idaho school reform ballot measures must disclose its donors by Wednesday, a 4th District judge ruled Monday afternoon.

Judge Mike Wetherell ordered Education Voters of Idaho to disclose its donors by 3 p.m. on Halloween. The group must “file all required further reports when required or face sanctions,” the judge wrote.

Possible sanctions include fines and penalties contained in the state’s Sunshine law. In addition, anyone flouting a court order could be held in contempt by the court, and even jailed until they comply with the order.

“The disclosure requirements clearly do not place an undue burden on free speech,” Wetherell wrote in his 19-page decision. “Voters are entitled to know who is standing behind the curtain. Idaho voters passed the Sunshine Initiative to give themselves the right to see who is trying to influence their vote.”

Christ Troupis, attorney for EVI, said requiring the group to name its donors would “chill 1st Amendment rights,” and that the donors had a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Troupis maintained his group, as a non-profit 501c4 nonprofit, was exempt from disclosure requirements. “There is no public interest in prying into private corporate business,” he wrote in arguments filed with the court.

But Wetherell ruled, “Idaho’s Sunshine Law applies to all individuals, corporations, associations or other entities of any type.”

The judge wrote, “The interest in free, fair and honest elections free of fraud and deception and the right of the people to know who seeks their vote for a candidate or an issue is at the heart of the electoral process.”

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa sued to enforce the state’s Sunshine Law after EVI rebuffed his demands for disclosure; Idaho’s voters enacted the law through a citizen initiative in 1974. Ysursa pointed to a clause in the law that forbids groups from concealing the true source of funds used in campaigns.

Wetherell cited that clause from the law twice in his decision, once in bold-face. “Idaho law is clear and unambiguous,” he wrote. “There can be no anonymous contributions either in favor of or in opposition to Propositions 1, 2 and 3.”

He also pointed to a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in a 2010 Washington case, Human Life of Washington Inc., that upheld that state’s similar disclosure requirement.

Education Voters of Idaho, which formed in August, collected anonymous donations, then passed along more than $200,000 to a related group, Parents for Education Reform, which the same day spent the money on the TV ads. The two group share directors and the same address; both were incorporated by two Boise political activists, John Foster and Kate Haas.

Former state Rep. Debbie Field, R-Boise, chair of both groups, said three weeks ago that potential donors to the pro-school reform measure campaign were told they had two ways to give: Directly to the official campaign organization, with full reporting, or anonymously through the two new groups, to avoid “intimidation” from teachers unions that oppose the measures.

Field said then that the groups provided an avenue “for people who really wanted to give, but didn’t want to go through the intimidation.” She said, “They will give if they feel like they can give anonymously to a place that will support education, but they don’t want to be maligned.”

After Wetherell’s ruling late Monday, Troupis told the Associated Press he was reviewing the decision and considering an appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court.

Ysursa maintains that Idahoans have a right to know who paid for the campaign ads before they vote on the three measures on election day – which is just one week away.

“This is about disclosure,” Ysursa said. “If we didn’t take this one to the mat, we weren’t going to take anything. To me, the crucial element of the law is disclosure.”

Brian Kane, deputy Idaho attorney general, told the court Monday, “There is a need for disclosure – the public has a right to know. This is the court’s opportunity to let that sun shine.”

From The Spokesman-Review

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