Court Reverses Ruling On Political Donor Disclosure

A federal appeals court threw out a lower-court ruling that would have forced more disclosure of big political donors. It's a relief for the social welfare organizations that account for much of the pro-Romney TV campaign.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The news today wasn't all bad for Mitt Romney and his team. A panel of three federal appeals judges reversed a lower court decision, one that would have required more disclosure of big political donors. As NPR's Peter Overby reports, that threat of disclosure was troubling to pro-Romney outside groups which have far outspent the Romney campaign on television.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: This is about issue ads, those TV and radio spots that don't expressly advocate a vote one way or the other. Two social welfare groups, Crossroads GPS and Americans For Prosperity, have specialized in issue ads helping Romney. Since April they've spent $77 million on TV, nearly twice as much as Romney's own campaign. That's according to an NPR analysis of data compiled by the Washington Post. And because there's a loophole in the Federal Election Commission regulations on disclosure, not one of their donors has been disclosed. The legal case here was an attempt to close that loophole.

Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland brought the lawsuit and a district court judge ruled in his favor. The decision sent the social welfare groups and the wealthy donors behind them into a tizzy. But today, the three-judge appeals panel reversed that decision. It says the district court should tell the Federal Election Commission to address the problem. What isn't at all clear is whether the partisan FEC commissioners can find agreement on how to proceed.

FRED WERTHEIMER: The court of appeals got this wrong.

OVERBY: Fred Wertheimer is a longtime advocate of campaign finance disclosure. He represents Van Hollen in the case.

WERTHEIMER: Congress never intended to have a contribution disclosure provision that results in no disclosure because of a flawed FEC regulation.

OVERBY: Seeking to overturn the lower court decision were two conservative advocacy groups. Attorney Jan Baran represents the Center for Individual Freedom.

JAN BARAN: If somebody wants to change the type of disclosure that we currently have, the proper way to do that is to pass a new law.

OVERBY: Something that Senate Republicans have thwarted.

BARAN: Basically, you know, Van Hollen and the reformers need to go back to the legislative drawing boards.

OVERBY: Spokesmen for Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity praised the ruling. They said their groups are evaluating how it affects them. Earlier this month, both groups switched to express advocacy, explicitly telling viewers to vote against President Obama. Those ads don't have any disclosure requirement either. But that's because of a different loophole. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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