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Judge clearing path for campaign finance probe into Arizona group

October 30, 2012 |  4:19 pm

Ann Ravel is chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission. A state judge in Sacramento appears ready to side with California's campaign finance watchdog in its effort to unmask the donors behind the Arizona nonprofit that donated $11 million to state campaigns earlier this month.

The judge issued a tentative ruling in the case Tuesday afternoon, one day before lawyers for the state and the Arizona nonprofit are scheduled to face off in court.

In the ruling, Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne W.L. Chang said the Fair Political Practices Commission can demand a variety of records to show whether the nonprofit was improperly shielding its donors' identities.

Chang did not say whether the nonprofit, Americans for Responsible Leadership, will eventually have to publicly disclose who its donors are. California regulations say donors must be identified if they gave to nonprofits with the intention of spending money on state campaigns here.

Americans for Responsible Leadership gave the $11 million to the conservative Small Business Action Committee, which is fighting Gov. Jerry Brown's tax-hike campaign and pushing a ballot measure to curb unions' political influence.

Without conducting an audit of the nonprofit, Chang said, Californians could suffer "irreparable harm" because voters may not get information critical to deciding how to vote on those issues.

The Arizona nonprofit has criticized the request for records as politically motivated and said it has a 1st Amendment right to keep its donors secret.

In its own court filing, the Fair Political Practices Commission said the Arizona group's defenses "are frivolous and grossly misstate California law."

The commission also denied that it was probing the group because of political pressure, saying the unusual circumstances surrounding the donation prompted its request for records.

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Can Gov. Jerry Brown turn Arizona controversy into votes for tax plan?

-- Chris Megerian in Sacramento
twitter.com/chrismegerian

Photo: Ann Ravel, chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

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