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December 1, 2015

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Ross Miller pursues campaign finance law violations against AFP

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Ross Miller

In a case that may force a national conservative political organization to reveal its donors, Nevada Secretary State Ross Miller is seeking to prosecute Americans for Prosperity for violating state campaign finance laws.

In a letter sent to Americans for Prosperity on Oct. 4, Miller announced he was referring charges to the Nevada attorney general for prosecution.

“We believe violations of Chapter 294A have occurred,” Miller wrote.

At issue are campaign mailers sent by AFP’s Nevada chapter attacking Democratic Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson in his primary campaign for the state Senate.

Under federal law, so-called political nonprofit groups such as AFP can advertise in elections if they avoid “magic words” such as "elect" or "vote for" that would indicate they are expressly advocating for the election or defeat of a candidate. By working within that narrow definition, such organizations can avoid disclosing who funds their group.

But in Nevada, the state campaign finance laws are more strict. If there can be “no other reasonable interpretation” than that the ad seeks the election or defeat of a candidate, then the producer must disclose the funding source for the ad.

In this case, AFP sent mailers in Atkinson’s district just before the June 12 primary election with his picture and accusations that he worked for special interests and sought a $1 billion electricity rate increase.

The mailers didn’t say “vote against” Atkinson; rather, they urged voters to call his office and tell him what they thought of his record.

AFP has not disclosed its donors in Nevada or nationally and has actively sought to keep them secret.

The Nevada Democratic Party filed the first complaint with the Secretary of State’s Office in August, accusing AFP’s Nevada chapter of failing to disclose how it funded the Atkinson mailers.

Since then, three other complaints have been filed, and an online petition has been signed by 1,406 people.

In response to the original complaint, AFP’s lawyers vigorously denied violating state law, describing the allegations as “frivolous.”

“While the (Democratic Party) attempts to throw everything and the kitchen sink at AFP by citing a slew of Nevada election code provisions, noticeably absent is any legal citatio or analysis whatsoever for the proposition that AFP has engaged in “express advocacy” or “expenditures,” other than pointing to factors that (the party) knows to be legally irrelevant,” AFP lawyers wrote.

AFP denied solicting contributions or making any expenditures designed to influence an election under Nevada campaign finance laws. The group’s Nevada representatives describe their actions as educating voters.

Even as the case heads to court, it’s unlikely it would be resolved before the election.

Miller, who has aggressively pursued similar cases, has so far been unsuccessful in forcing such groups to reveal their donors. Two similar cases, from the 2010 election, remain in court.

Americans for Prosperity is a conservative organization founded by the billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch. The group is widely credited with helping Republicans win the majority in the House in 2010 after spending millions nationally on campaigns bolstering conservatives.

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