A conservative group is running online ads in opposition to Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s proposed rule that would force so-called dark money groups to disclose some information about financial backers and spending if they purchase more than $1,000 in political advertising during an election.
Concerned Veterans of America, based in Virginia, said in a news release late last week that the regulation would make contributors “subject to harassment and intimidation.”
Dark money groups are organizations — including some nonprofits, like Concerned Veterans of America — that engage in electioneering but don’t operate primarily for a political purpose, meaning they don’t have to register with the state or federal government as political committees and publicly disclose where they get their money and how they spend it.
Dark money groups have played an increasingly larger role in elections nationwide as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the 2010 Citizens United case, which freed unions, corporations, some nonprofits and others to spend as much as they want on political activities as long as they do so independently of candidates.
As a result of Citizens United and other federal court decisions, government regulators of campaign activity have had to walk a fine line between First Amendment protections for political speech and public demand for greater transparency in politics.
Under Toulouse Oliver’s proposed rule, a person or dark money group that spends more than $1,000 for political advertising during an election would have to file a report with the Secretary of State’s Office detailing the expense. Also, the person or group would have to provide the name and address of each person who made contributions of more than $200 in the previous 12 months that were “earmarked or made in response to a solicitation” to fund independent political expenditures.
Toulouse Oliver’s proposed rule follows Gov. Susana Martinez’s veto of legislation that included similar provisions for disclosure by dark money groups. Opponents argue such disclosure would open their donors to political attacks.
“The First Amendment is the foundation of American democracy for a reason,” said Dan Caldwell, the policy director for Concerned Veterans of America.
“When you strip people of their fundamental right to express themselves — publicly or anonymously — you take away their ability to collaborate, debate and drive change. Secretary [Toulouse] Oliver is circumventing the legislative process in an attempt to intimidate New Mexicans into silence. This is America, and no one should be forced to report their personal beliefs to the government.”
Concerned Veterans of America says its mission is to “advocate for policies that will preserve the [nation’s] freedom and prosperity.” The Washington Post has reported that the group has received significant funding from TC4 Trust, a fund set up by brothers Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists from Wichita, Kan., who are major funders of conservative candidates and causes across the country.
Concerned Veterans of America spearheaded a campaign to petition Martinez to veto the legislation that would have required some dark money groups to disclose their finances.
“CVA led a coalition of eleven different organizations and sent a letter to Gov. Martinez asking her to reject the measure,” Caldwell said. “The group also launched a targeted digital campaign, including a tool which allowed New Mexico constituents to contact Gov. Martinez directly via email, Facebook, Twitter, and phone to warn her about the dangers of [Senate Bill] 96.”
Deputy Secretary of State John Blair, in an email Friday, referred to polls commissioned by New Mexico Common Cause that showed overwhelming public support for more campaign contribution disclosure.
“Over 90 percent of New Mexicans support additional disclosure and transparency in political campaigns and we won’t be tricked by this out-of-state, hyper-partisan group funded by the Koch brothers,” Blair said. “The draft rule does not ban anyone from participating in politics but you will have to disclose where your money is coming from and how you’re spending it. The CVA’s false claims of potential harassment or intimidation are 100 percent false.”
Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, defended Toulouse Oliver’s proposed rule.
“There is nothing in the Secretary of State’s proposed rules that will prevent anyone from their constitutional right to free speech — the few reporting requirements included for those attempting to influence our elections only apply to big spenders, and the courts have repeatedly said that disclosure of where this money comes from is constitutional,” Harrison said. “Free speech is vital to our democracy, as is the public’s right to know where these messages come from and who is paying for them.”
The Secretary of State’s office has scheduled three public hearings on the proposed rule, including one at the Capitol on July 13. The other hearings are set for July 18 in Albuquerque and July 19 in Las Cruces.
The proposed rule is part of a larger package of planned regulations dealing with campaign finance.
The proposed regulations would bring campaign finance rules in line with court decisions in recent years dealing with which groups have to register as political committees and disclose all their donors and expenses.
Under the proposed regulations, only groups whose primary purpose is making contributions to candidates or making independent political expenditures would be required to register as political committees.
Last week, House Republican Whip Rod Montoya of Farmington said the Secretary of State’s Office was usurping the powers of the Legislature by adopting the regulations despite Martinez’s veto of legislation that included many of the changes to campaign finance rules that Toulouse Oliver is now seeking.
Toulouse Oliver’s predecessor, Dianna Duran, proposed similar rules but dropped the regulations, saying the Secretary of State’s Office didn’t have the legal authority to adopt them.