October 30, 2012 in Idaho

School ads group can’t hide

Secretive Education Voters of Idaho must disclose its donors, judge rules
By 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.

“Voters are entitled to know who is standing behind the curtain,” the judge wrote in his 19-page decision. “Idaho voters passed the Sunshine Initiative to give themselves the right to see who is trying to influence their vote.”

The group is considering an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

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 – even jailed – until they comply with the order.

Christ Troupis, attorney for the group, said disclosing donor names would “chill 1st Amendment rights.”

Donor had a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” he said.

Troupis maintained that the nonprofit group 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: “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.”

The judge noted that “Idaho’s Sunshine Law applies to all individuals, corporations, associations or other entities of any type.”

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa sued to enforce the state’s Sunshine Law after the group 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 and then passed along more than $200,000 to a related group, Parents for Education Reform, which on that same day spent the money on the TV ads. The two groups share directors and the same address; both were incorporated by Boise lobbyists and political activists, John Foster and Kate Haas.

Former state Rep. Debbie Field, a Republican who now chairs both groups, earlier said potential donors to the pro-school reform 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.

The groups provided an avenue “for people who really wanted to give but didn’t want to go through the intimidation, Field has said.

Ysursa maintains that Idahoans have a right to know who paid for the campaign ads before they vote on the three measures next week.

“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.”

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