COLUMBUS - Nearly three years after the election, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce was still fighting attempts yesterday to force it to reveal who financed its controversial “Lady Justice” ad targeting a state Supreme Court justice.
“We'll take this to the U.S. Supreme Court if we have to to protect it,” chamber attorney William Todd told the Ohio Elections Commission yesterday.
The commission is considering a motion from the Alliance for Democracy government watchdog group that would force Citizens for a Strong Ohio, a nonprofit arm of the chamber, to release its list of contributors for the 2000 ad. The ad depicted a gilded lady justice holding scales weighed down on one side by cash and suggested the votes of Justice Alice Robie Resnick, an Ottawa Hills Democrat, were swayed by campaign contributions from labor and trial lawyers.
The commission put off a final decision yesterday, encouraging the two sides to reach a compromise.
The commission has determined the ad was financed improperly by corporate money and has set a Nov. 13 hearing to decide what the chamber's punishment should be. It has yet to decide whether the chamber intentionally made false statements in the ad.
“I'd like to talk to the people who wrote $100,000 or $500,000 checks,” Alliance attorney Cliff Arnebeck said. “A person who writes a check of that magnitude wants a discussion of what that money's going to be used for. I'd like to know what that conversation was.”
Mr. Todd accused the Alliance of trying a backdoor approach to get its hands on the contributor list, which the chamber so far has been able to protect under a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed anonymous bankrolling of “issue ads” that don't overtly call for the election or defeat of a candidate.
After the issue was sent back to the elections commission by U.S. District Court, another watchdog group, Common Cause, struck a deal with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over similar ads. The chamber admitted corporate money had been used improperly and accepted a $1,000 fine. Common Cause, in turn, dropped its allegation that the ads contained false information.
The move was designed to get the issue into the courts to ultimately resolve whether the U.S. Supreme Court meant to protect ads like the one that targeted Justice Resnick in the weeks before her re-election.
The Ohio Chamber said it's prepared to admit corporate money was used improperly for the Lady Justice ad but argued that the commission can't retroactively apply disclosure rules on contributors who thought their effort was constitutionally protected at the time.
In the 2002 elections business and labor turned to anonymously financed independent “issue ads” to praise and criticize candidates, citing the Ohio Chamber's actions.
Mr. Arnebeck said depositions of those who wrote and distributed the ad revealed that Strong Ohio paid roughly $1.5 million to air the Resnick “attack ad.” The entire U.S. and Ohio Chamber ad budgets for the 2000 Supreme Court elections has been estimated at about $5 million.