SACRAMENTO — An Arizona group was scrambling late Sunday to keep secret the individuals behind its $11-million donation to a California campaign fund after California's Supreme Court, in a rare and dramatic weekend action, ordered it to turn over records that could identify the donors.
The order followed days of frenzied legal battles between California regulators, who have tried to get documents related to the anonymous contribution before election day, and attorneys for the Arizona nonprofit who have resisted delivering them.
The showdown continued into the night Sunday, with no records produced nearly seven hours after the justices' late-afternoon deadline. Lawyers for the nonprofit said they were trying to comply even as they rushed to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to halt to the audit.
The $11 million went to a committee that is fighting tax increases proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown in Proposition 30 and promoting an initiative that could limit political spending by unions, Proposition 32. The donation has been among the most controversial moves of this election season, with Brown railing against the "shadowy" contributors at campaign appearances.
The case, which has the potential to reshape a growing sector of political giving, has put California at the forefront of a national debate over concealed political donations. Ann Ravel, chairwoman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which initially sued the Arizona group, called the California high court's decision historic.
It all began with a complaint from activists at Common Cause, who said the $11-million donation from Americans for Responsible Leadership violated a new California regulation. Federal law allows nonprofits to keep the identities of their donors confidential, but a rule implemented here in May says contributors must be identified if they give to nonprofits with the intention of spending money on state campaigns.
The matter has rocketed from court to court as Ravel's commission fought to obtain the Arizona group's records. The seven justices of the state Supreme Court, based in San Francisco, made the unusual decision to consider the matter over the weekend. On Sunday afternoon, they held a conference call to discuss it.
Shortly after 3 p.m., they ordered Americans for Responsible Leadership to produce — in less than an hour — the records sought by Ravel, a Brown appointee. The justices did not explain their unanimous decision, indicating in their order that they would consider the legal issues in a later, more detailed ruling.
But no records were delivered as a team of auditors and lawyers waited in the commission's Sacramento office, prepared to dig into the nonprofit's emails, text messages, financial statements and meeting minutes. Their task would be to comb the disclosures for any sign that the contribution violated the new California regulation.
If the Arizona group was found to be in violation, the state planned to direct the nonprofit to disclose the donor names and was ready to back up the directive by seeking another court order, if needed, Ravel said.
Lawyers for Americans for Responsible Leadership balked at the California court's order, preferring to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the case before turning over anything. In the early evening, they asked the California jurists for more time — at least until 9 a.m. Monday — to comply.
That would provide enough time, they said, to request an emergency stay from the nation's high court. Attorneys defending the nonprofit group wrote to Washington outlining their case.
"Disclosure in this highly charged political environment and in the face of an unprecedented and vehemently legally contested investigation is impermissible viewpoint discrimination and plainly violative of ARL's First Amendment rights," Thad Davis, a lawyer for the nonprofit, said in his letter to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice Anthony Kennedy has authority over Western states and can issue a stay in this case.
Meanwhile, the state court told the Arizona group there would be no extension.
At risk of being in contempt of the state court, lawyers for the nonprofit said they would begin an "attempt to comply with the order."
"While we are working to deliver the records, we still believe the FPPC does not have the authority to take such an action," said Matt Ross, a spokesman for the group's legal team, in a statement Sunday night.
Ravel said she had staff members prepared to work all night to review whatever the Arizona group produced.
A career government lawyer, Ravel is hardly known in Sacramento as a firebrand. But the Arizona group says in its court filings that she is conducting a "one-woman media onslaught, rabblerousing and prejudging, including 'tweeting' her incendiary view."
State authorities are keeping the pressure on as election day looms.
California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, whose office is helping to represent the Fair Political Practices Commission in court, said in an interview that the Arizona group's legal maneuvers are "an effort to obstruct the process and run out the clock."
Times staff writer Evan Halper contributed to this report.