Political donors who financed campaign ad must be revealed

Prior Restraints | Feature | January 14, 2004

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Political donors who financed campaign ad must be revealed

  • A pro-business group created by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce lost its bid to keep a list of political contributors secret, after its failed attempt at beating a Supreme Court justice's re-election bid.

Jan. 14, 2004 -- An effort to stop the forced disclosure of anonymous donors' names by moving a state case to federal court failed in December, leaving the case pending before a state appellate court. That appeal concerns a Franklin County judge's November order to release the names of those who funded Citizens for a Strong Ohio, a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to unseat state Supreme Court Justice Alice R. Resnick in November 2000.

Alliance for Democracy and Common Cause of Ohio, two non-profit organizations opposing corporate influence on government, sought the donor list for the advertisements, which implied that Resnick, up for re-election, rendered "justice for sale" opinions. In the Nov. 5 Columbus Dispatch, the Alliance alleged that the ads aired false statements and were largely paid for by illegal corporate contributions. Corporate money cannot directly be used for political ads in Ohio.

The Ohio Elections Commission ruled last April that both the U.S. and Ohio Chambers of Commerce broke the state's election law, and the business groups sought to challenge that order in court.

On Nov. 4, Judge John Bender ordered the Chamber of Commerce to release a list of its donors to the Alliance, which contended that campaign donor names must be disclosed according to Ohio law. Citizens for a Strong Ohio must comply or suffer a daily contempt fine of $25,000. The fine was suspended by the state District Court of Appeals in Columbus throughout the appellate process.

The business groups then sought relief in federal court, but Judge George C. Smith of the U.S. District Court in Columbus last month sided with the Ohio Elections Commission, and dismissed the motion. Smith said the case was a state matter, not federal, and noted that the state appellate court still was considering the case.

Following Bender's decree, Alliance's attorney Clifford O. Arnebeck told The Columbus Dispatch that the decision was "beautiful" and "in the public interest."

In its April decision, the state elections commission found that the First Amendment shields neither the Ohio Chamber of Commerce nor the U.S. Chamber of Commerce from allegations of Ohio election law violation.

Following the decision, Resnick in April told The Cincinnati Enquirer the significance of identifying the donors. "If those corporations had to be disclosed . . . they would think twice," she said.. "Their stockholders would not like the fact that they are involved in these decisions to influence elections."

Despite the estimated $4.5 million spent to unseat her in favor of Terrence O'Donnell, a Cleveland appellate court judge and Republican who was thought to be more friendly toward commercial interests, Resnick was reelected to the bench for a third term. Throughout the election, O'Donnell defended his independence from business interests.

The Citizens for a Strong Ohio's "Lady Justice" TV ad campaign depicted a female judge, peering through a blindfold at stacks of cash on her desk. One advertisement implied Resnick, a Democrat, changed her votes to placate contributors.

According to the People For the American Way website, her supporters argued that the correlation between campaign contributions and Resnick's court decisions was lower than every other justice's on the Ohio Supreme Court.

(Citizens for a Strong Ohio v. Ohio Elections Commission; Ohio Elections Commission v. Citizens for a Strong Ohio and the Ohio Chamber of Commerce; Alliance Attorney: Clifford O. Arnebeck, Columbus, OH) -- AB


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