October 22, 2012 in Idaho

Idaho sues to force disclosure of secret donations

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Betsy Russell photo

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa
(Full-size photo)

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Read the state’s legal complaint here, and Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa’s full statement here

BOISE - Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa went to court Monday, seeking a court order to make a defiant secret-donations group reveal the source of more than $200,000 spent on statewide campaign commercials backing three controversial school-reform measures.

The lawsuit, filed in 4th District Court in Ada County, asks the court to declare that Education Voters of Idaho is a political committee subject to Idaho’s Sunshine law, and order it to file campaign finance reports disclosing donors.

“The voters made it clear, when they passed the Sunshine initiative, that public disclosure is an essential element of Idaho elections,” Ysursa said in a statement. “The citizens want to know where the money comes from and how it’s spent. That’s been the policy and the law of this state for 38 years. My job is to enforce that law.”

Idaho’s Sunshine law, enacted by voter initiative in 1974, says its purpose is “to promote openness in government and avoiding secrecy by those giving financial support to state election campaigns and those promoting or opposing legislation.”

John Foster and Debbie Field, co-founders of Education Voters of Idaho, maintain that because it’s a 501(c)4 nonprofit, it’s exempt from Idaho’s campaign finance disclosure laws, but the state says otherwise. In a letter sent to the group Monday, Deputy Attorney General Michael Gilmore wrote that the group’s nonprofit status “has no bearing on the issue.”

Instead, he wrote, Idaho law states that any corporation that receives donations of more than $500 and spends those in support of or in opposition to a ballot measure is a political committee under Idaho law, and must disclose its donors.

Ysursa said when the group still failed to respond to the state’s demands for disclosure, he headed to court. “I welcome the involvement of EVI in the electoral process and do not wish to limit their participation,” he said. “I am simply asking the court to order them to file the campaign finance disclosure reports that are required by law.”

Last week, attorney Christ Troupis, on behalf of the group, offered to refund the $200,000-plus in contributions rather than disclose the donors. Monday’s letter from Gilmore called that “not acceptable.”

Ysursa told The Spokesman-Review, “The money has been received, and the money has already been spent. It’s hard to undo that.”

Said Ysursa, “Pre-election disclosure is crucial.”

Troupis maintained that the new group had no more responsibility to disclose its donors than did the Idaho Education Association and the National Education Association, both of which made large contributions to the campaigns against the school-reform ballot measures.

Gilmore responded in his letter, “You are correct that the IEA and NEA are in many ways similar to the EVI with regard to receiving contributions and in turn forwarding them to other political committees. That is why similar demands are also being directed to them.”

On Monday, the state of Idaho sent letters demanding disclosure reports from three groups: The NEA, the IEA, and the League of Conservation Voters. NEA donated $1.06 million to the “Vote No on Props 1,2,3” campaign; the IEA made in-kind contributions of $180,021 to the same campaign; and the League of Conservation Voters contributed $15,000 to Conservation Voters for Idaho Action Fund, the letters noted.

Education Voters of Idaho funneled more than $200,000 in secret donations to another group, Parents for Education Reform, to pay for a statewide TV ad campaign backing the three school reform measures on Idaho’s November ballot, Propositions 1, 2 and 3. Parents for Education Reform and Education Voters of Idaho have the same chair, the same boards, and the same address.

Ysursa’s lawsuit names EVI’s three board members: Field, Phil Reberger and Mark Dunham.

Foster said the group had no comment after the filing of the lawsuit.

But earlier the same day, he and Field sent out a press release headed “We won’t back down,” and vowed to continue their campaign without revealing their funding sources.

“A decision about further television advertising hasn’t been made yet,” Foster said.

Foster said the group temporarily suspended its campaign activities after its TV commercial, with the slogan “Education reform for the 21st century is as simple as 1, 2, 3,” had completed its two- to three-week statewide run.

Foster, a former executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, and Field, the longtime campaign manager for Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and a former longtime GOP state representative from Boise, issued a guest opinion to Idaho newspapers Monday contending they formed their group because existing groups advocated for school administrators, school board members, and teachers, but not for parents. They wrote that their group suffered “attacks,” showing “just how dangerous a powerful group of motivated parents will be to a politicized system in desperate need of improvement and change.”

However, Idaho has long had an organized parent advocacy group, the Idaho PTA, which has thousands of members throughout the state and was established in 1905. The Idaho PTA has taken a neutral position on the ballot measures, urging its members to research them and cast their votes accordingly.

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