Thursday, April 22, 2004

Bill to ID judicial donors gets big push

By Leo Shane III
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - A bill to reveal contributors of third-party groups in Supreme Court campaigns is moving ahead in the Senate after a series of endorsements from Ohio's top elected officials.

On Wednesday, Auditor Betty Montgomery pushed for the legislation at a Senate committee hearing, saying the public should know more about issue-advocacy groups that spend millions to influence the judicial elections.

"What we've seen happening over the last few years goes to the core of whether our judiciary is independent," she said. "Judicial candidates are restrained in their actions, but issue advocacy groups are not. There is all sorts of mischief that can happen if we don't have full disclosure of their members."

The bill would require any group that airs an ad about a Supreme Court candidate to disclose its contributors in the same manner that candidates must make public who has donated to their campaigns.

Election law now prohibits independent groups from outright advocating for a candidate's election or defeat. But that still allows broad leeway for advertising content, and the groups can shield the identities of those who pay for the ads.

Ads created by Citizens for a Strong Ohio, affiliated with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, drew national attention in 2000 for accusing Justice Alice Robie Resnick of accepting donations in exchange for favorable court rulings.

Resnick won re-election, and chamber officials refused to reveal the advocacy groups donors during subsequent investigations into election law violations.

In addition to Montgomery, Chief Justice Thomas Moyer has already endorsed the bill, and on Tuesday Gov. Bob Taft voiced his support in a letter to bill sponsor Sen. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green. "Ohio voters are entitled to nothing less than full disclosure," Taft wrote. "The health of our democracy is dependent on an open, free-flowing exchange of ideas and information."

The idea also got backing from the League of Women Voters of Ohio and Ohio Citizen Action, although both groups want significant changes to the bill's wording to close potential loopholes.

Gardner said he expects to implement most of those groups' requests. He is hoping the measure will pass out of committee in the next two weeks, with a full Senate vote coming shortly thereafter.

From there the bill would go to the House, where Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, has not offered support or opposition.

The legislation provides for a $10,000 initial fine and an additional $1,000 each day for groups that refuse to reveal their donors.

Montgomery said she would like to see the bill expanded to include all elections - including legislative and statewide offices - but characterized the measure as an important first step.

"We all know these ads are really thinly-disguised ads for candidates," she said. "But there is no way to determine who is running these ads. Here is no way to discover the contributors. For the system to have integrity, we need that."

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