Democratic "Dark Money" Group Finally Registers With Arizona

A Democratic "dark money" group finally registered with the state as a political committee to avoid getting slapped with a contempt charge, the Arizona Secretary of State's Office announced today.

Problems for the group, the Committee for Justice and Fairness, began when it ran TV ads in 2010 attacking then-Attorney General Tom Horne, claiming he wasn't tough on child pornographers and rapists. Horne struck back with a legal action that tried to block the ads from airing.

"While the process took far too long, I think it shows how diligent we will be to do what we can within the law to shed light on political spending." — Michele Reagan, Arizona Secretary of State

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That attempt failed, but he also filed a campaign-finance complaint against the CJF. The Arizona Secretary of State's Office ran with the complaint and ordered the group to file as a political committee. An Arizona administrative law judge also found that the group wasn't in compliance with state law.

After years of back-and-forth from the court system, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled last year that the CJF had to register. In April, the state Supreme Court rejected the group's last-ditch appeal. 

The saga's final chapter was written on Monday, when the CJF registered as a political committee and filed finance reports going back to 2010. The move allowed it to avoid an "order to show cause" hearing set for Monday that could have resulted in the group's being found in contempt for failing to comply with the previous court orders.

"After months of stonewalling, our office is satisfied that the group has complied with the court order," Secretary of State Michele Reagan said in a written statement today that labeled the CJF as a "dark money" group. "While the process took far too long, I think it shows how diligent we will be to do what we can within the law to shed light on political spending."

The CJF finance reports, as the public can now see, show that the main contributor to the CJF, which had spent $1.5 million on the anti-Horne ads alone, was the Democratic Attorney Generals Association. That shouldn't shock anyone because the information has been well-known since 2010. A local blogger who goes by "Mitch M." claims he outed the group's funding source in 2010. In any case, the group's funding hasn't been all that dark since 2010. Horne, a Republican, also alleged in his 2010 complaint that DAGA provided the money for the CJF.

DAGA, on the other hand, isn't registered with Arizona. Some critics perceive it as dark-money group itself. But the group files regular IRS Form 8872s, which are reports of contributions and expenditures. These forms, in turn, show DAGA's many individual and corporate contributors.

A review of DAGA finance reports from 2010 show only one major contributor from Arizona that year: LifeLock, the scandal-plagued, anti-identity-theft company, gave $25,000. This doesn't mean LifeLock's money went to the anti-Horne campaign by the CJF, however. DAGA raised at least $1.3 million nationwide that year, using the money to target Republicans in many states.

Travis Berry, executive director for DAGA, didn't return a call seeking comment. Neither did representatives of the Arizona chapter of the CJF, which has maintained that it never advocated against Horne but rather merely gave the public information.

Horne won the 2010 election somewhat narrowly against Democratic contender Felecia Rotellini. But following a series of scandals, including the embarrassing revelation that the married official was having an affair with another woman, Horne lost the 2014 primary race to political newcomer and fellow Republican Mark Brnovich, who went on to take the seat in the general election.

Horne's apparently still under investigation for several alleged infractions and is appealing a $400,000 court order for campaign-finance violations.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.