The Influence Industry

Citizens United challenges the strident side of Supreme Court ruling

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By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010

Fresh off a landmark victory in the U.S. Supreme Court, the conservative advocacy group Citizens United is trying to get around one part of the ruling it didn't like.

The group's attorney, former solicitor general Theodore B. Olson, sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission on Monday arguing that Citizens United should not be subject to campaign-finance disclosure requirements because it is actually a "press entity" that produces and distributes documentary films.

The FEC exempts media organizations from campaign-finance laws even though many of them -- such as The Washington Post -- traffic heavily in political news and views. The FEC, Olson wrote, "should conclude that Citizens United's documentary film activities are covered by both the media and commercial transaction exceptions."

The letter underscores the fact that the conservative group was not wholly pleased with the high court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In the most-noticed part of the case, the court ruled 5 to 4 that corporations such as Citizens United could spend as much as they wanted for or against political candidates, prompting praise from conservatives and a tide of criticism from President Obama and other Democrats.

But there was another part of the ruling that Citizens United and other conservatives didn't like so much. The court decided 8 to 1 that the government is well within its rights to require corporations and other entities to report their donors, expenditures and other campaign-related financial information. The ruling means that although Citizens United is now able to spend freely on elections, the group might be required to report more information about where it got its money and how it was spent.

In his letter to the FEC, Olson said the nonprofit group has produced and distributed 12 documentary films on a variety of subjects since 2004, including a 2008 production about then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, which formed the heart of the recent Supreme Court case. Citizens United has spent about 25 percent of its budget on films over the past six years and has been accredited as a member of the "press" when filming some news events, Olson added.

The group tried this tack once before, in 2004, but the FEC rejected the argument because Citizens United had "produced only two documentaries since its founding." The group argues that the situation has changed.

"After a dozen films in six years, with more on the way, I think it is time that the FEC recognized us for what we are: a documentary filmmaking studio," said David N. Bossie, Citizens United's president. "Whether or not the FEC likes the content of our films, we should be allowed to produce, market and air our films without interference from the federal government."

But Paul Ryan, associate counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said the group has a tough sell because it admits that it still spends a majority of its time doing political advocacy. In 2004, Ryan said, the FEC also emphasized that Citizens United, unlike most media companies, was paying to have its documentaries aired, rather than being paid.

"Citizens United was arguing from the get-go that it didn't want to comply with disclosure, but they lost that," Ryan said. "Now they're back with a new argument."

Major donors, small bills

The Republican National Committee and its chairman, Michael S. Steele, got in hot water this week over a new FEC expense report showing that the party spent nearly $2,000 for "meals" at a West Hollywood dance club that features female dancers simulating lesbian sex in bondage gear.

It turned out to be a gathering of about a dozen "Young Eagles" -- major GOP donors under 45 -- who flocked to the Voyeur nightclub after an official RNC function in nearby Beverly Hills. The donor program's director, Allison Meyers, was fired Monday in connection with the outing.

Now, the RNC is putting the brakes on the Young Eagles program, at least temporarily, according to a GOP e-mail circulated Wednesday. The RNC's finance staff will conduct an audit of the program's books starting next week and has canceled upcoming events, including a gathering at the Philadelphia Phillies' season opener and a retreat at a firearms training center owned by the security contractor formerly known as Blackwater.

Who knew that one little trip to a sex-themed bondage club would cause such a fuss?


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