Koch-backed group sues Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris over donor list

Americans for Prosperity Foundation sues Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris after her office sought list of donors

A nonprofit charitable group backed by conservative mega-donors David and Charles Koch has sued Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris for seeking the names and addresses of the group's donors.

The Americans for Prosperity Foundation filed a federal lawsuit in Los Angeles earlier this week against Harris, saying her office's demand for a list of the group's donors violates its 1st Amendment rights.

Under California law, charitable organizations are required to register with the state and submit copies of its public IRS filings, known as the Form 990.

Earlier this year, Harris's office warned the foundation that its registration was incomplete for 2011 and 2012 because the group did not include a "Schedule B," a list of names and addresses of every individual who gave more than $5,000 to the group during a given tax year. Such lists are also submitted to the IRS, but are kept confidential and not available to the public. 

The foundation said they have been registered with the state since 2001 and had never before been asked for its list of donors.

"California's attorney general, for reasons known only to her, is nonetheless trying to compel disclosure of the confidential Schedule B by nonprofits around the state," the group said in its filing. The lawsuit was first reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

David Beltran, a spokesman for Harris, said the requests simply follow the law.

“California law requires that all charitable entities file a Schedule B as part of the Form 990. Schedule B is not publicly disclosed,” he said. “While Americans for Prosperity has been out of compliance with the law for a number of years, they did not receive a communication previously from our office for one simple reason: the section responsible for enforcement has been chronically underfunded for years. As a result there is, unfortunately, a backlog of delinquent charities who receive delayed enforcement notifications.

Beltran added that “there has been no change of policy at the California Department of Justice, nor has there been a change in the law — all charitable entities are required to file a Schedule B that remains confidential as part of their Form 990. This is simply the enforcement of a law that all charities are required to comply with and has long been on the books.”

Americans for Prosperity Foundation was co-founded in part by brothers David and Charles Koch; David Koch also serves as the organization's chairman. The billionaire executives have spent extensively to promote conservative economic causes. In its filing, the group describes itself as "devoted to the promotion of limited government and free markets" and has hosted conferences, issued policy papers and run educational programs to promote those views.

Disclosure has been at the heart of a heated campaign finance battle in recent years, with conservatives arguing that revealing the sources of political spending could stymie free speech. Attorneys for the foundation said donors could face threats to their safety, business boycotts or other repercussions should their identities be revealed.

Potentially revealing the group's contributors "poses a grave risk to these individuals' ability to continue expressing themselves robustly and freely," the group said in its complaint.

"Precisely because they fear compelled disclosure and the harms that will follow, would-be donors are shying away from contributing to the Foundation, and the current donors have warned that they will cease their contributions as and if the prospect of disclosure rises."

The Attorney General's office, in letters to the foundation, asserted that the donor information would remain confidential and kept separate from publicly accessible filings. 

Another conservative group, the Center for Competitive Politics, has also filed suit against Harris for her request of donor information.

Follow @melmason for more on California government and politics.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


2:37 p.m., Dec. 12: This post has been updated with additional comments from David Beltran, spokesman for California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris.

This post was originally published at 4:22 p.m. PST, Dec. 11.