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AG Snoop Surge Is Bad News for Non-Profits

Monday January 4th, 2016   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 9:26am PST   •  

CA Atty General_200We have been following the story of the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which came in ten years late, a full $5 billion over budget, and with serious safety concerns. During hearings in Sacramento whistleblowers called for a “criminal investigation,” but California Attorney General Kamala Harris failed to follow up. But as Jon Riches notes in the Sacramento Bee, this does not mean that California’s AG has been inactive.

Riches works for the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, and in late 2015 the Institute “received a demand from Harris’ office to turn over a copy of private tax information that includes the names and addresses of our contributors. Although this information is protected from disclosure under both the First Amendment and federal tax law, refusing to comply with this demand would presumably result in our organization losing its ability to solicit new members in California.”

For Riches, Goldwater’s national litigation director, this mandate comes cloaked as a transparency measure but is actually “a concerted effort to stifle speech with which disclosure advocates disagree.” Riches recalls that in 1956 the AG of Alabama sought to force the NAACP to turn over its member list. The group refused and the U.S. Supreme ruled against Alabama, citing freedom of association and privacy.

Harris’ demand extends to 501(c)(3) groups, which are forbidden by law from engaging in electoral politics. As Riches notes, there are nearly one million of these organizations, including schools, public radio stations and soup kitchens. Ideologically, they span a broad range. Riches finds Harris’ information demands “no more persuasive than the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records without lawful authority.” He concludes that “every American has the right to support the causes we believe in without the fear of harassment and retaliation. Disclosure mandates undermine this basic freedom, dry up donations to charities and silence political speech.”

The Attorney General, meanwhile, faces no legal obstacle to investigate criminal misconduct on the Bay Bridge but has not done so, despite the lingering safety issues. As California congressman Mark DeSaulnier notes, “it’s frustrating that there’s never been anyone in the management of the bridge who has been held accountable.”

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January 2016