California watchdog sues Arizona group over secret donors

SACRAMENTO — California’s campaign finance watchdog sued an Arizona nonprofit group Thursday, escalating the battle over a controversial $11-million political donation.

The Fair Political Practices Commission is seeking records, ranging from financial statements to text messages, as part of an effort to unmask the nonprofit’s donors, who have been accused by activists of improperly hiding their identities.

A California regulation says nonprofits cannot conceal a donor’s identity if the contribution was intended for a state campaign. The $11 million went to the Small Business Action Committee, which is fighting Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax campaign and pushing a ballot measure to curb unions’ political influence.


“It seems to strain credulity that the donors would not know it’s going to be used for a campaign in California,” Ann Ravel, the commission’s chairwoman, said in a recent interview.

The Arizona group, Americans for Responsible Leadership, has not handed over any documents, calling the investigation politically motivated. In a court filing, the group says it has a 1st Amendment right to keep the identities of its donors secret.

A hearing in Sacramento County Superior Court is scheduled for Tuesday.

Brown praised the commission’s investigation Thursday while campaigning for his tax measure, Proposition 30, in San Francisco.

“I just hope they force these shadowy figures to come out from under their rock or the bushes or the forest — wherever they dwell,” he said.

The Arizona group, through its Virginia lawyer, has denied violating any rules, according to a document filed in court Thursday.

Americans for Responsible Leadership “did not and has never solicited earmarked contributions for any particular project for which it decides to spend money,” wrote the lawyer, Jason Torchinsky. “As a result, no donor had reason to know that ARL would make a contribution” to the Small Business Action Committee.

Times staff writer Anthony York contributed to this report.