A sharply divided Federal Election Commission on Thursday denied a request from a leading tea party group for an exemption from disclosing its financial backers to protect them from harassment.
The FEC board voted 3-2 against a motion to exempt the Tea Party Leadership Fund. The fund will have to continue to disclose donors who contribute more than $200, despite its contention that its donors should be given an exemption given to special persecuted groups such as the Socialist Workers Party and the NAACP during the civil rights era.
FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, quoting Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, said “requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
Commissioner Steven Walther, who also voted against the fund’s motion, said the group was “not a minor organization” requiring special protection from the normal rules of disclosure.
The TPLF “has a lot more muscle and a lot more money,” Mr. Walther said. “I don’t think the donors are really worried about threats to themselves and safety issues that plagued the Socialist Workers Party.”
But Commissioner Matthew Petersen, one of the two Republican members of the panel who supported the exemption request, said the TPLF’s petition documenting past harassment justified the group’s request. The fund submitted more than 1,400 pages containing examples of harassment, ridicule and threats against tea party members from the media and the general public. The submission also noted the still-simmering scandal over whether the Internal Revenue Service deliberately targeted some conservative groups applying for federal tax-exempt status for special scrutiny and regulatory delays.
The case of the TPLF, Mr. Petersen said “is just as strong as, if not stronger than that of the Socialist Workers Party. I think [TPLF] is entitled to exemption.”
Commissioner Ann Ravel argued that the TPLF did not meet either of the requirements laid out in previous court cases that would make it eligible for exemption.
“My view is that is doesn’t meet those provisions for either reason, either that you are a minor party or organization or that the harassment reaches the kind of harassment that is the historical backdrop of the court decisions that speak to this issue,” she said.
“Certainly no one at this table wishes to condone any harassment for anyone who wishes to express their political views in any way.”
The exemption needed four votes to pass.
Some outside liberal groups had been openly critical of the fund’s request for an exemption, and praised the FEC’s move.
“It is encouraging that the FEC rejected the outrageous request by the Tea Party Leadership Fund, but it is disappointing that even two commissioners were willing to go along with the idea that the tea party group should be eligible for an exemption originally granted to the imperiled membership of the NAACP in the Jim Crow South,” said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center.
“Had the justifiably high bar for this exemption been lowered enough to allow the Tea Party Leadership Fund to qualify, it is difficult to imagine what political groups would not qualify for the exemption — including the Republican and Democratic National Committees.”
On a separate issue, the election commission broke new ground by making its first ruling on the booming new Internet currency known as bitcoins, ruling that political organizations can’t accept contributions in the form of bitcoins, at least for now, according to The Associated Press.
The commission passed on a request by the Conservative Action Fund, a political action committee, to use the digital currency. That group recently asked the FEC whether it could accept bitcoins, how it could spend them and how donors must report those contributions. It was not immediately clear whether the same ruling would apply to individual political candidates.
The commissioners deadlocked 3-3 along party lines on the bitcoin petition.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.