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Attorneys representing an obscure Arizona nonprofit that spent $11 million this month on California initiative wars today cited the federal "Citizens United" campaign speech ruling as one reason the group does not have to disclose its donors.

Americans for Responsible Leadership faces a lawsuit from the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which has demanded the group turn over communications and transactions data related to an $11 million check ARL gave a business campaign committee this month. FPPC chairwoman Ann Ravel said the commission is trying to determine whether the group violated California disclosure rules.

The group's money has gone toward fighting Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative, Proposition 30, and supporting a measure restricting union dues collection, Proposition 32.

In a 14-page brief filed with Sacramento Superior Court, the group's attorneys said the U.S. Supreme Court's "Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission" ruling is one decision that shows "the indisputable notion that non-profit corporations have constitutional rights."

ARL attorneys said the FPPC lacks authority to conduct an audit until after an election and did not consult its commissioners before asking for data. They asserted the FPPC has never demanded the same information from at least eight other nonprofits, ranging from the American Cancer Society, which gave $7.3 million mostly toward a tobacco tax initiative this year, to the Nature Conservancy, which donated $2.8 million as it sought to impose a fee to benefit state parks in 2010.

The lead attorneys for ARL are from Northern Virginia law firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak PLLC, which has longstanding Republican ties in Washington, D.C. The group says on its website that it specializes in advising PACs, Super PACs and nonprofits, among other organizations.

Ravel, a Brown appointee, said she has authority under FPPC rules to act on her own between commission meetings. She said the rules are clear, "so that argument is ridiculous."

She added that the post-election audit rules only apply to groups classified as "recipient committees," which are already required to disclose their donors, and not nonprofits like ARL. "I think the fact that they are Virginia lawyers has certainly hampered them in their understanding of the law that governs the FPPC," she said.

Ravel said the FPPC is examining Americans for Responsible Leadership in response to a complaint from California Common Cause, a campaign finance watchdog group that opposes Proposition 32. "In advance of an election when there are so many issues pending, generally the commission only responds to complaints," she said. "We cannot audit or investigate every single committee that is doing political campaigns in California."

The attorneys have asked the court to postpone the hearing scheduled for Tuesday morning by one day due to problems related to Hurricane Sandy.

Update (3:20 p.m.): Sacramento Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne W.L. Chang has agreed to delay the hearing until 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. Ravel said the FPPC will file a reply brief by Tuesday.


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