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Federal Judge Issues Game-Changing Ruling on Dark Money

Some say this could lead to “significantly more transparency” in elections.

An ethics watchdog has claimed a “major court victory” after a federal judge issued a ruling invalidating a Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulation that allowed contributors to so-called dark money organizations avoid disclosure.

“This ruling looks like a major game changer,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). “Based on this ruling, the public should know a whole lot more about who is giving money for the purpose of influencing an election, and it will be much harder for donors to anonymously contribute to groups that advertise in elections.”

CREW was a plaintiff in the case, and had challenged in 2012 Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS — a “not-political committee” — over its failure to disclose who donated $6 million in the Ohio Senate race, a sum CREW argued was subject to federal reporting requirements.

US District Court Judge Beryl A. Howell found that Crossroads GPS’s defense didn’t hold water, writing Friday that the three-decade old FEC regulation at question fell short “of the broad disclosure that Congress intended.”

The challenged regulation, she concluded, can facilitate groups’ “routing” of contributions to candidates or the groups’ affiliated super PACS, and

blatantly undercuts the congressional goal of fully disclosing the sources of money flowing into federal political campaigns, and thereby suppresses the benefits intended to accrue from disclosure, including informing the electorate, deterring corruption, and enforcing bans on foreign contributions being used to buy access and influence to American political officials.

Her decision, CREW explains, means that “dark money groups that spend at least $250 in independent expenditures — a key type of political ad — must report every contributor who gave at least $200 in the past year as well as those who give to finance independent expenditures generally.”

In a Twitter thread outlining the importance of ruling, Center for Responsive Politics’ Robert Maguire says it “could fundamentally change the role dark money plays in elections (if it has a role at all).”

Bookbinder agreed, saying it “could dramatically change the American political landscape and result in significantly more transparency.”

“Major donors are now on notice that if they contribute to politically active 501(c)(4) organizations, their contributions will have to be disclosed,” he said, “and if they are not, CREW will pursue enforcement cases with the FEC and, if necessary, in court.”

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