BOISE — A judge ruled Monday that a nonprofit group must disclose donors who financed more than $200,000 in campaign ads touting public schools chief Tom Luna’s education overhaul.
Fourth District Judge Michael Wetherell ruled in favor of Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who had filed the lawsuit against Education Voters of Idaho. Wetherell gave the group a deadline of 3 p.m. Wednesday to disclose its donors.
Ysursa argued that voters now headed to the polls ahead of the Nov. 6 election that will decide whether Students Come First changes survive will suffer irreparable harm if they can’t find out who put up the money for the ads.
Wetherell agreed with Ysursa that Education Voters of Idaho was a political committee with an obligation to publicly reveal its financiers, under Idaho’s 38-year-old Sunshine initiative. The judge gave Ysursa’s office permission to pursue civil penalties and attorney costs; deputy secretary of state Tim Hurst said nothing has been decided, beyond simply winning disclosure.
“The voters have a right to the most full, most accurate information they can get in spite of the many obstacles placed in their way by those who would prefer to hide behind catchy, vague names,” Wetherell wrote in a 19-page decision. “Nothing has been shown which overrides the strong, substantial interest of the citizens of Idaho in knowing who is seeking to influence them as they exercise their right to vote.”
Education Voters of Idaho founders Debbie Field, Gov. Butch Otter’s campaign manager, and lobbyist Phil Reberger, former chief of staff for Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, are trying to conceal their donors.
They argue their group is a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization with a broad mission of promoting education reforms that enjoys federal protections for the identities of their donors. Ysursa’s bid for disclosure, according to their claim, was having a chilling effect on their First Amendment free-speech rights.
Christ Troupis, the group’s lawyer, told The Associated Press on Monday afternoon that he had just received the decision.
“I’m reviewing it with my clients and an appeal is likely,” Troupis said, suggesting that he would take the case to the Idaho Supreme Court for another round of scrutiny.
During a hearing early Monday afternoon, Troupis complained that Ysursa’s office had singled out EVI in an unprecedented application of Idaho’s voter-approved disclosure law.
He cited affidavits from Reberger and Field contending that none of the group’s still-unidentified financiers were told their money would pay for the campaign ads. Consequently, Ysursa lacked evidence the money was intended as a political contribution to the ad campaign and his lawsuit should be rejected, Troupis argued.
“The intent of the contribution is essential,” Troupis told the judge. “They haven’t proven their case.”
Meanwhile, Ysursa’s lawyer, deputy attorney general Brian Kane, said EVI was trying to participate in the political process while cloaking the sources of its cash in secrecy and shadow.
“No one is saying you can’t advance the message, all we’re saying is, the public has a right to know who is behind it,” said chief deputy attorney general Brian Kane. “The defendants have repeatedly said, ‘We want to be a part of the campaign,’ and yet, they don’t want to disclose.”
Wetherell, who said he’d worked all day Sunday and rose early Monday morning to familiarize himself with the lawsuit’s details, agreed with Kane.
“Voters are entitled to know who is standing behind the curtain,” Wetherell wrote, citing a 2010 case in Washington state where a nonprofit group, Human Life of Washington, was forced to disclose its donors despite similar claims the reporting requirements of the sunshine law there were an unconstitutional burden on free speech.
Luna’s education changes, among other things, limit union bargaining power, promote teacher merit pay, and require online classes and student laptop computers — if they survive the polls in eight days.