Court action may lift anonymity for some campaign donors

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Nonprofit groups that want to run campaign ads within two months of the general election have to reveal the names of their donors. That's the result of a federal appeals court action on campaign finance law.

Several weeks ago, a federal court in Washington told the Federal Election Commission it could not allow the buyers of tens of millions of dollars' worth of ads to remain anonymous.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit late Monday, on a 2-to-1 vote, refused to grant a stay of that decision pending appeal. It ordered the full appeal to be heard sometime this fall.

At issue is the ability of tax-exempt groups that run political ads within two months of the general election — or within one month of a primary — to keep secret the names of their donors. Such groups spent some $80 million in the 2010 congressional elections, primarily supporting conservative candidates or attacking their opponents. The donors behind less than 10 percent of that amount were ever disclosed.

"It's a very important victory in the battle to end the secret contributions that are currently being funneled into federal elections," said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, the liberal group that worked with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to sue the FEC.

The ruling applies specifically to so-called electioneering communications. Not addressed were nonprofit groups that make what are called "independent expenditures" in campaigns. Those are covered in a different section of campaign finance law.

Wertheimer says his group is contemplating a second lawsuit seeking to disclose the donors who finance those forms of ads as well.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio.

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