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Lawyer key to campaign finance laws’ fate

GOP-backed attorney challenging states’ requirements to disclose all donations

Greg Gordon McClatchy

WASHINGTON – A conservative Indiana lawyer engineered the string of legal victories that have enabled corporations and wealthy individuals to channel tens of millions of dollars into this year’s midterm elections secretly, a study by campaign watchdogs has found.

James Bopp Jr., a Republican-backed lawyer from Terre Haute, Ind., who has fought campaign finance laws for 30 years, filed the lawsuit that led to last January’s Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate and union dollars to bankroll independent election ads.

Bopp said he is now challenging laws in at least a dozen states – California, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Ohio, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin – that require disclosure of the names of campaign contributors.

Some of those cases, Bopp said, challenge requirements to disclose all donations of $25 or more, a threshold he considers too low.

“James Bopp is the point man for conservative wealthy interests whose goal is to dismantle the laws and regulations we have in place to stop the buying of Congress and other elected officials,” said former Rep. Bob Edgar (D-Penn.), the president of the liberal-leaning lobby Common Cause.

Labor unions also have capitalized on the relaxed rules to spend tens of millions of dollars from their treasuries this year, but there is no mystery about the source of their funds: members’ dues.

By Sunday, nonprofit groups backing Republican candidates or opposing their foes had spent $105 million, compared with $61.7 million by those supporting Democrats, according to the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation. However, national Democratic Party committees had narrowed the gap by doling out $67.9 million, outpacing their Republican counterparts by more than $7 million.

Prominent outside groups that support Democrats are in the game, too. Abortion-rights group Emily’s List and the liberal activist group, for example, have spent less than $1 million combined so far, and they have disclosed their large donors.

Common Cause and another liberal-leaning group, Public Campaign, commissioned Klein Research Services to conduct the study of Bopp’s record, headlined “The Man Behind Our Secret Elections.” McClatchy obtained an advance copy.

Reached by telephone, Bopp chuckled at the findings and said: “Oh gosh, this is probably the most credit I’ve ever gotten. And I already think I get an unwarranted amount of credit, because judges write the opinions.”

While the study cited a statement in which he purportedly said he had a 10-year plan to dismantle campaign finance laws, Bopp said that came from a joke he made earlier this year.

“I said I had a 10-year plan in my head,” he said. “There’s no 10-year plan. There’s just things I think about.”

The study said Bopp has served as both a legal defender of and a recipient of political cash from undisclosed donors, in addition to payments of more than $1 million since 2003 from the Republican National Committee.

Bopp said that he has crusaded against both federal campaign donation limits and disclosure requirements because he thinks corporations have First Amendment rights in election campaigns and shouldn’t be “punished” with negative publicity for exercising them.

A series of court cases spearheaded by Bopp, his nonprofit James Madison Center for Free Speech and other conservative legal centers have unraveled key underpinnings of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which Congress enacted in an effort to plug the unlimited flow of cash into federal elections.

The court rulings, capped by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision early this year, reversed the prohibition on the airing of campaign-season issue ads that identify candidates, but don’t directly support or oppose them. The high court also lifted a long-standing ban on independent corporate spending to influence elections.

The rulings, however, left intact a bar on direct corporate donations to political campaigns, and the Supreme Court appeared to encourage rules to require disclosure of the donors’ names. Eight of the nine justices concurred in a section that envisioned “effective disclosure” of donors’ names via the Internet, available to voters.

However, the Federal Election Commission implemented the ruling more narrowly, requiring only identification of contributors who designate money for specific advertisements, not those who donate for general campaign themes.

A McClatchy review of recent FEC reports has found that the court’s action and the FEC’s implementation of it have enabled special interests to pour big bucks into this fall’s races, often without disclosing the sources of the money.

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