When Hillary Clinton-votarist David Brock “acquired” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) last August DC insiders immediately recognized the significance. Politico described it as “a major power play that aligns liberal muscle more fully behind the Democratic Party . . . The reconfigured CREW [will] expand its focus into state politics and donor targeting and will operate in close coordination with Brock’s growing fleet of aggressive Democrat-backing nonprofits and super PACs.”
Brock has since moved on to opposition research for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign but his partisan imprint on CREW’s Colorado affiliate, Colorado Ethics Watch (CEW), was hardly necessary. Since 2006, the “watchdog” has used the state’s imprimatur to amass a resume of complaints against Centennial State conservative groups—chilling speech rights in the process. But an upcoming ruling from a federal judge may finally expose CEW’s nefarious methods and motivations.
Last year CEW used a private-enforcement provision in Colorado’s campaign finance statutes to sue Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (RMGO) and Colorado Campaign For Life (CCFL). The alleged illegal activity centered on some mailers sent to Republican primary voters discussing their issues as the election approached. The groups did not engage in “express advocacy”—overt political activity—but merely wished to inform voters of candidate positions during the time they are most likely paying attention.
Courts since Buckley v. Valeo have repeatedly afforded public policy organizations greater relief from campaign finance strictures than straightforward political outfits like candidate committees, parties, and now Super PACs. RMGO and CCFL are 501(c)(4) nonprofits that engage in advocacy about contentious and highly emotional issues. Donor privacy enables these groups to advocate without fear of reprisal from either government or agitprop concerns like CEW. Nevertheless CEW demanded these groups reveal any donors that gave a mere $250 dollars for electioneering communications.
With paramount First Amendment rights at stake, the groups instead sued the state and CEW on constitutional grounds. The groups believe CEW engages in retaliation and viewpoint discrimination against speakers they disagree with, and the numbers back them up. By one count 41 of the 52 prosecutions CEW has undertaken have targeted conservative groups. Of the other 11, 10 were either unknown or against government.
Like its parent organization, CEW realizes ‘the process is the punishment.’ Forcing policy-oriented nonprofits to defend legal actions at the height of the election season diverts time and resources away from advocacy, stifling their message. The plaintiffs’ lawyers, led by RNLABoard of Governor Member David Warrington, have sought to depose CEW principals to discern whether they bring suits for improper means. According to Warrington:
CEW has employed a pattern of pretextual targeting of conservatives and conservative groups. Plaintiffs anticipate that such discovery will demonstrate CEW’s animus towards their organizations, their bad faith motives in bringing the state court case, and their intent to retaliate for political speech based upon disfavored viewpoints.
Unsurprisingly CEW has reacted with the customary umbrage of ‘ethics’ watchdogs when placed on the defensive.
Regrettably the situation is not unique to Colorado. FEC CommissionerLee E. Goodman created a stir last week when he asserted employing hard deadlines for resolving enforcement decisions would disproportionately harm conservative groups—currently 49 of 65 docketed FEC actions. Even more than Colorado, Washington is awash in ‘complaint mills,’ like the Brock-connected American Democracy Legal Fund, whose website consists of nothing but actions against Republicans. Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 are now evenasking the Justice Department to police federal campaign finance statutes because of what they perceive as Republican Commissioner intransigence.
Of course lost in the calls for “enforcement” of the laws and ever more regulations is the toll on First Amendment guarantees. When a technology executive is hounded out of his job for a six-year-old contribution, or a google cam is focused on one’s home, or as in Wisconsin, overzealous prosecutors turn peoples’ lives upside down on a coordination “theory,” the system is off kilter. When as little as a $250 donation can potentially wreak havoc on someone’s life and livelihood the real goal is not information but silence. RMGO and CCFL are hopefully taking the first steps toward rebalancing.
By Paul Jossey