SAN FRANCISCO — A U.S. appeals court ruled Tuesday that California's attorney general can collect the names and addresses of top donors to two conservative nonprofit groups, including one with links to the billionaire Koch brothers.
The information from Americans for Prosperity Foundation and Thomas More Law Center serves the important state goal of preventing charities from committing fraud and was unlikely to be released publicly, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said. The unanimous ruling overturned a lower court decision that blocked the state from collecting the donor names.
California requires all charities that collect money from state residents to give the state an Internal Revenue Service form identifying their largest contributors. The state is not allowed to disclose the names publicly, but state officials say they need the names to determine whether a group is really doing charitable work and is not involved in illegal business activity.
Americans for Prosperity Foundation is a charitable organization connected to the primary political organization supported by brothers David and Charles Koch. The brothers' organizations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting Republican candidates and conservative policies, making the brothers frequent targets of attacks by Democrats.
The Thomas More Law Center's mission includes preserving "America's Judeo-Christian heritage," according to its website. It provides free legal representation in lawsuits it sees as key to its mission.
Americans for Prosperity Foundation spokesman Bill Riggs said in a statement the 9th Circuit's ruling would "imperil people's First Amendment right to freedom of speech and of association."
Requiring the groups to disclose their top donors would deter contributors and subject donors to threats and harassment, the two groups argued. The 9th Circuit panel rejected those arguments, saying the groups had not identified a single person whose willingness to contribute depended on whether their names would be disclosed to the California attorney general.
"The mere possibility that some contributors may choose to withhold their support does not establish a substantial burden on First Amendment rights," 9th Circuit Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the panel.
The judges said the state had not previously maintained the donor names as securely as it should have, but it had since imposed stronger policies to prevent public disclosure.
Riggs said the foundation "intends to continue doing all it can to champion and protect the important constitutional rights at stake."
The Thomas More Law Center had no immediate comment.