- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2020

A conservative nonprofit group has asked the Trump Justice Department to help fend off a lawsuit attempting to force the disclosure of its donors.

It is the latest twist in a unique legal battle that is testing the separation of powers over campaign finance litigation.

American Action Network says the left-leaning watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has waged a nearly decade-long legal battle to force it to reveal the names of its donors.

CREW says the organization is operating as a political committee and therefore must disclose its donor list under the Federal Election Act of 1971, which requires reporting and other measures for groups that spend money to influence elections.

The Federal Election Commission has refused to pursue violations against American Action Network, so CREW used an obscure federal law to take the group to court in the District of Columbia.

On Monday, American Action Network petitioned the court to have the Justice Department get involved, saying the constitutional issues in the case could have serious ramifications.

“If CREW were to prevail, it would dramatically alter the separation of powers between the executive branch and the courts,” said Ian Prior, a spokesman for American Action Network.

“Attorney General Bill Barr has long been an advocate of a strong and independent executive branch, and it is important that the Department of Justice join this suit to prevent a political organization from hijacking an executive branch prosecution and using the courts to weaken our American system of checks and balances,” he added.

The group charges that part of the federal law allowing CREW to usurp the government’s authority in pursuing a private action over possible election law violations against it is unlawful, as it violates the Constitution by infringing on the authority given to the executive branch and getting the judiciary involved.

In court documents, the group argues that CREW can’t seek court intervention over the FEC’s decision not to pursue any charges against the conservative organization.

“Neither the Constitution nor the law permits CREW’s effort to usurp executive enforcement authority to pursue stale and repeatedly dismissed allegations,” American Action Network argues.

CREW first filed a complaint to the FEC in 2012, but after the commission failed to act against American Action Network, CREW filed a federal lawsuit in 2018, arguing the conservative group spent 71% of its spending on campaign activities.

The watchdog group said American Action Network received nearly $3 million in contributions during its first fiscal year, 2009-2010, and spent money on broadcast and digital advertisements in 29 primary and general elections, supporting Republican candidates.

A representative from CREW said the organization would not comment on pending litigation.

District Court Judge Christopher R. Cooper, an Obama appointee, has refused to dismiss the case, ruling CREW has the legal standing to bring the suit due to “informational injury” in not being able to obtain access to American Action Network’s list of donors.

“Because CREW has suffered a cognizable informational injury, it has established injury in fact,” the judge wrote in an opinion issued in September.

The case has proceeded into discovery, but the Justice Department would have 60 days to file court papers to intervene.

A spokesperson from the Justice Department did not return a request for comment from The Washington Times.

William Yeatman, a research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, said the legal battle raises red flags and serious questions about the statute allowing citizens to bring suits such as the CREW case.

“Given what we have seen in terms of the evidence — political fallout — this seems to fall evenly on partisan lines and there is nothing stopping the right-leaning groups suing the left-leaning groups,” he said. “The whole thing stinks.”

• Alex Swoyer can be reached at aswoyer@washingtontimes.com.

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