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FEC: Tea Party May Not Shield Donors


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene. The Federal Election Commission has turned back a bid by conservatives to weaken the federal campaign-finance disclosure law. A Tea Party group had asked for a precedent-changing decision to keep its donor lists secret. It said Tea Party members are being targeted for harassment and intimidation. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The commission deadlocked yesterday: three votes to exempt the Tea Party Leadership Fund from disclosure. And three votes not to. The political action committee could go further and sue the FEC. Its attorney, Dan Backer, said he wasn't sure the PAC would want to. But he added this.

DAN BACKER: I believe the harassment and vitriol and abuse by the government of its critics gets worse and not better every year, and I think somebody else will eventually be able to bring a reasonable claim here. And they might very well be Tea Party organizations.

OVERBY: Conservatives are waging a long campaign against the federal disclosure law. Since the Watergate era candidates, party committees and political action committees have had to identify donors above a $200 threshold. There are two major precedents for exemptions from donor disclosure. First, there's a long-standing exemption for the Socialist Workers party, a controversial group with all of 11 donors.

The Tea Party Leadership Fund has raised $1.6 million this year. FEC commissioner Matthew Petersen, a Republican, said the PAC's problem is that it isn't as inconsequential as the Socialist Workers.

MATTHEW PETERSON: Basically you're too big, too successful for being granted the exemption.

OVERBY: Backer replied this way.

BACKER: I'm not really sure what the appropriate ratio of success or dollars to government harassment and bullying is.

OVERBY: The second precedent -- In 1958 the Supreme Court gave privacy protection to the NAACP when it was besieged with fire bombings and violence in Alabama during desegregation. Citing that precedent, the Tea Party Leadership Fund gave the FEC 1,700 pages of material about hostility aimed at Tea Party members generally. It didn't claim its own donors had been affected. Backer said the Obama White House has set the tone for widespread hostility.

BACKER: From government officials, elected officials, private actors, the media.

OVERBY: And Republican commissioner Caroline Hunter pointed to the IRS controversy last spring.

CAROLINE HUNTER: The inspector general's report of harassment of the Tea Party by the Internal Revenue Service: I don't know how it can get much worse than that.

OVERBY: But the three liberal commissioners were un-persuaded. They raised another element of the legal argument - the burden faced by the PAC is up against the public's right to know where the politicians get their money.

ELLEN WINTRAUB: We need to balance, and that's what the Supreme Court has told us.

OVERBY: Commission chair, Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, suggested that the laws against threats and intimidation are already enough to protect donors to the Tea Party Leadership Fund.

WINTRAUB: I rarely quote Justice Scalia, but when I do, it's usually this quote.

OVERBY: Scalia was commenting in a case on disclosing petitioners for a ballot initiative against same-sex marriage. Weintraub read from Scalia.

WINTRAUB: Harsh criticism short of unlawful action is a price our people been traditionally willing to pay for self-governance. Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.

OVERBY: After the commission's inconclusive votes yesterday, the PAC could say the commission lacks a majority to enforce disclosure. Backer said he wouldn't take that chance. And Paul Ryan, from the pro-disclosure Campaign Legal Center, said Justice Department prosecutors might go after anyone who did.

PAUL RYAN: They don't need four votes from the FEC to enforce the laws.

OVERBY: Conservative lawyers are pressing the anti-disclosure case on other fronts. Among the arguments: They say voters don't really care who writes the big checks to politicians. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.