A team led by lawyers from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr filed suit today in federal court in Washington, accusing the Federal Election Commission of gutting a federal law that requires the disclosure of non-profit donors whose money goes toward election advertising.
The lawsuit, on behalf of a prominent Democratic congressman, takes on the politically charged question of election-related disclosures just as the 2012 presidential race is taking shape. It asks a judge to declare an FEC regulation invalid and pave the way for the release of the names of more donors.
According to the complaint (PDF), the FEC regulation meant that in the 2010 congressional election cycle the vast majority of donors for “electioneering communications” remained anonymous. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, reported spending $32.9 million on television and other communications, but it disclosed none of its contributors.
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act, generally required the disclosure of donors who gave $1,000 or more, the lawsuit says. But, the lawsuit adds, the FEC rule narrowed the reporting requirement based on donors’ intent.
Roger Witten, a partner is Wilmer’s New York office, is lead counsel on the lawsuit, representing U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Others working on the lawsuit include Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer and Donald Simon, a partner in Washington’s Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry.
A spokeswoman for the FEC had no comment. The Chamber did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Update (6:19 p.m.): Blair Latoff, a spokeswoman for the Chamber, called the lawsuit “the latest in a clearly coordinated and desperate attempt by the [White House] and House Democrats to resurrect the corpse” of campaign-finance legislation that failed last year.
Latoff wrote in an e-mail that the lawsuit echoes a recently disclosed White House draft proposal that would require companies pursuing federal contracts to disclose campaign contributions. “What they mean is, ‘we need better tools to find out who disagrees with us politically so that we can take steps to intimidate them and silence their voices before 2012,’” she wrote.