Monday, March 26, 2018
Judge Amy Berman Jackson (D.D.C.) ruled on Friday that donors to a PAC don't have a First Amendment right against public disclosure of their identities as part of the FEC investigation file into their political contributions.
The ruling means that the FEC investigation file, including the contributors' identities, will be released, unless and until the ruling is appealed.
The case, John Doe 1 & John Doe 2 v. FEC, arose when the FEC launched an investigation into a series of transactions that landed Now or Never PAC with a $1.7 million contribution. The FEC's OGC learned that John Doe 2 sent about $1.7 million to Government Integrity; that Government Integrity wired about that amount to American Conservative Union; and that American Conservative Union, in turn, sent that amount on to Now or Never PAC.
The FEC's OGC recommended that the Commission find reason to believe that John Does 1 and 2 violated FECA's prohibition on "mak[ing] a contribution in the name of another person or knowingly permit[ting] his name to be used to effect such a contribution." The FEC rejected the recommendation, however, and sent the case to conciliation. Based on the results of conciliation, the FEC found that there was reason to believe that the plaintiffs, the PACs, and the treasurer of Now or Never violated FECA's prohibitions on making or receiving contributions in another person's name.
The FEC also advised that it would put the documents related to the case on the public record.
The John Does sued, arguing that this violated their First Amendment rights, among other things.
Judge Jackson disagreed. She noted initially that "plaintiffs do not make any claim that anyone's associational rights are being infringed, and disclosing the identities of plaintiffs here would not involve the disclosure of anyone's internal operations or political strategies." She also noted that the FEC recently revised its disclosure policy and tailored it "to minimize the burdens on constitutional rights while providing for sufficient disclosure to advancing legitimate concerns of deterring future violations and promoting Commission accountability."
She then wrote that "the constitutional issue has already been decided in the agency's favor." Quoting Citizens United,
The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.
Judge Jackson went on to hold that the FEC's disclosure policy is reasonable (under the APA) and consistent with FOIA.