Citizens United Wins Another Ruling — This Time From FEC

Posted June 10, 2010 at 12:37pm

Citizens United, fresh off of its landmark victory on campaign finance issues in the Supreme Court, won again Thursday when the Federal Election Commission ruled that the conservative group does not have to reveal the donors behind its political documentaries.

Citizens United argued that it should not have to file disclosure reports to the agency for its films because it considers itself part of the media.

While the FEC granted exemptions to the group from filing forms as independent expenditures, it did not go so far as categorizing the political nonprofit a “news entity.” The net result of Thursday’s FEC ruling means Citizens United will not have to disclose who is funding its documentaries, which last year cost more than $3.4 million to produce and air.

Citizens United’s request this year was itself a sequel of a similar one it submitted in 2004 to the FEC that commissioners denied. But a lot has changed during those six years, said Democratic Commissioner Cynthia Bauerly, who ended up being the swing vote in the often-deadlocked agency.

She said that considering how much media work the Citizens United has done recently, “in my view the circumstances presented here today differ substantially and significantly” from the 2004 case.

Over the years, the organization, led by Whitewater chief investigator David Bossie, has produced 14 documentaries, including: “Hillary: the Movie,” “Celsius 41.11” and “HYPE: The Obama Effect.”

Filing the opinion request for Citizens United was Ted Olson, the former solicitor general who won the contentious Supreme Court decision in January that allows corporations, unions and nonprofit to use unlimited funds from their treasuries to run ads to elect and defeat federal candidates.

The FEC vote Thursday was 4-1, with only Democratic Commissioner Steven Walther dissenting.

“In the past, I have supported a broad interpretation of the press exemption,” he said, “in large part because … the communications were treated as a prohibited corporate expenditure. This is no longer the case, however, as a result of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.”

The Campaign Legal Center filed comments to the FEC saying it would be inappropriate for the agency to grant a media exemption to a group that has previously referred to itself as an “advocacy organization.”

“This is a bold face effort by Citizens United to circumvent the disclosure laws that the Supreme Court found were constitutionally applicable to the organization,” the group argued in a legal statement with the agency. “Citizens United stands in stark contrast to the kinds of clearly identified ‘press entities,’ which the Commission has previously recognized as being with the scope of the press exemption.”

Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, who often leads the Democrats toward greater regulation, was absent from the proceedings Thursday because she is on vacation.