Meet the Lawyer Who Argued Money Is Speech, and Won

Published on
by
McClatchy Newspapers

Meet the Lawyer Who Argued Money Is Speech, and Won

by
Gregg Gordon

James Bopp Jr. is making a name for himself by challenging federal and state campaign finance laws. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON
— A conservative Indiana lawyer engineered the string of legal
victories that have enabled corporations and wealthy individuals to
channel tens of millions of dollars into this year's midterm elections
secretly, a study by campaign watchdogs has found.

James Bopp Jr., a Republican-backed lawyer from
Terre Haute, Ind., who's fought campaign finance laws for 30 years,
filed the suit that led to last January's Supreme Court decision
allowing unlimited corporate and union dollars to bankroll independent
election ads.

Bopp said he's now challenging laws in at least a
dozen states, including California, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine,
Minnesota, Ohio, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and
Wisconsin, which require disclosure of the names of campaign
contributors.

Some of those cases, Bopp said, challenge requirements to disclose
all donations of $25 or more, a threshold he considers to be too low.

"James
Bopp is the point man for conservative wealthy interests whose goal is
to dismantle the laws and regulations we have in place to stop the
buying of Congress and other elected officials," said former Democratic
Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Edgar, the president of the liberal-leaning lobby
Common Cause.

Labor unions also have capitalized on the relaxed
rules to spend tens of millions of dollars from their treasuries this
year, but there's no mystery about the source of their funds: members'
dues.

By Sunday, nonprofit groups backing Republican candidates or
opposing their foes had spent $105 million, compared with $61.7 million
by those supporting Democrats, according the Washington-based Sunlight
Foundation. However, national Democratic Party committees had narrowed
the gap by doling out $67.9 million, outpacing their GOP counterparts by
more than $7 million.

To be sure, prominent outside groups that
support Democrats are in the game, too. Abortion-rights group EMILY's
List and the liberal activist group Moveon.Org, for example, have spent
less than $1 million combined so far, and they've disclosed their large
donors.

Common Cause and another liberal-leaning group, Public
Campaign, commissioned Klein Research Services to conduct the study of
Bopp's record, headlined "The Man Behind Our Secret Elections."
McClatchy obtained an advance copy.

Reached by telephone, Bopp
chuckled at the findings and said: "Oh gosh, this is probably the most
credit I've ever gotten. And I already think I get an unwarranted amount
of credit, because judges write the opinions."

While the study
cited a statement in which he purportedly said he had a 10-year plan to
dismantle campaign finance laws, Bopp said that came from a joke he made
earlier this year.

"I said I had a 10-year plan in my head," he said. "There's no 10-year plan. There's just things I think about."

The
study said that Bopp has served as both a legal defender of and a
recipient of political cash from undisclosed donors, in addition to
payments of more than $1 million since 2003 from the Republican National
Committee.

Bopp said that he's crusaded against both federal
campaign donation limits and disclosure requirements because he thinks
corporations have First Amendment rights in election campaigns and
shouldn't be "punished" with negative publicity for exercising them.

A
series of court cases spearheaded by Bopp, his nonprofit James Madison
Center for Free Speech and other conservative legal centers have
unraveled key underpinnings of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance
law, which Congress enacted in an effort to plug the unlimited flow of
cash into federal elections.

The court rulings, capped by the
Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United decision early this year,
reversed the prohibition on the airing of campaign-season issue ads that
identify candidates, but don't directly support or oppose them. The
high court also lifted a long-standing ban on independent corporate
spending to influence elections.

The rulings, however, left intact
a bar on direct corporate donations to political campaigns, and the
Supreme Court appeared to encourage rules to require disclosure of the
donors' names. Eight of the nine justices concurred in a section of the
opinion that envisioned "effective disclosure" of donors' names via the
Internet, available to voters.

However, the Federal Election
Commission implemented the ruling more narrowly, requiring only
identification of contributors who designate money for specific
advertisements, not those who donate for general campaign themes.

In
the past, conservative legal strategists argued that full, timely
disclosure of the sources of campaign money is all that's needed to
regulate campaign spending. Now, said Paul Ryan, a lawyer for the
Campaign Legal Center, they seem to have changed their minds.

A
McClatchy review of recent FEC reports has found that the court's action
and the FEC's implementation of it have enabled special interests to
pour big bucks into this fall's races, often without disclosing the
sources of the money.

Take the political committee American
Crossroads, created by Karl Rove, the chief architect of George W.
Bush's two presidential victories, and former Republican National
Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie. The group has identified large donors,
some writing seven-figure checks, to finance the nearly $16 million it's
spent to support Republican congressional candidates since Sept. 15,
mainly in 10 key Senate races.

However, Crossroads Grassroots
Policy Strategies, a sister group that operates from the same offices,
hasn't disclosed the identities of any of the donors who've bankrolled
$11 million in expenditures for GOP candidates, especially in seven
Senate contests.

Yet another group sharing the office suite, the
tax-exempt American Action Network, headed by former Republican Sen.
Norm Coleman of Minnesota, has spent $3.3 million directly supporting
GOP candidates or opposing their Democratic rivals and another $14.8
million since Sept. 1 on issue ads naming candidates, also without
disclosing its donors.

Both Crossroads GPS and the American Action
Network have claimed 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status, which is permitted
only if influencing elections isn't the groups' "primary purpose."

They've
kept their donors' names secret under a rule that exempts those who
didn't designate their money for specific ads. Democratic Sen. Max
Baucus of Montana, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has
asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the legitimacy of such
groups' tax status.

In other examples:

_ The U.S. Chamber
of Commerce created a tax-exempt entity to air issue ads as part of its
campaign for a Congress that's friendlier to business. The new rules
require these groups to identify donors who give $1,000 or more to back
such campaign communications unless the money doesn't go for particular
ads.

Citing the breadth of its campaign, the Chamber has declined
to identify any of the contributors who've financed more than $32
million in expenditures through Friday.

_ The Club for Growth, a
political action committee that's backed GOP candidates for years and
some anti-tax tea party candidates this year, found a way to assist its
former president, Pat Toomey, in his campaign to succeed Sen. Arlen
Specter of Pennsylvania, who lost the Democratic primary to Rep. Joe
Sestak.

While Toomey's campaign, like all others, is constrained
by a $2,400 limit on donations from any one individual, the newly formed
Club for Growth Action Fund solicited unlimited donations and has spent
at least $3.9 million aiding GOP Senate candidates, including $2.1
million to help Toomey against Sestak.

_ According to the Sunlight
Foundation, the Citizens for a Working America PAC has spent $250,000
to oppose the re-election of South Carolina Democratic Rep. John Spratt,
the chairman of the House Budget Committee. The group reported one
donor: New Models, a Virginia-based tax-exempt group that doesn't reveal
its contributors.

Bopp said that some conservative tax-exempt
groups have begun collecting donations of less than $1,000, putting them
into separate accounts for use in financing ads so the donors don't
have to be identified and "drug through the mud" even if they bankroll
specific ads.

While large campaign donations can corrupt a
candidate, Bopp said, "There is literally no evidence that independent
spending corrupts candidates."

Ryan counted that that under the
current rules, "it's extremely easy to launder your money through a
harmless-sounding group like Americans for America, while hiding the
identity of arguably less-popular true funders."

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

Tidal wave of outside money swamping 2010 elections

Will flood of big money make a difference in election?

Does big ad spending matter if voters just tune it out?

Share This Article

More in: