TALLAHASSEE — Shadowy groups that attack first and disclose their big-money donors after an election won't be able to be so secretive now that Gov. Charlie Crist has signed a law that broadens state regulation of campaign committees.
Under the new legislation signed into law Friday, nearly every group that spends more than $5,000 to communicate a message about a state candidate must register with the state as an Electioneering Communication Organization, which would have to detail its donors and expenses.
The regulations arrive just in time for the 2010 campaign season — and the candidates of both parties who often live in fear of being targeted by groups that can raise and spend unlimited sums. Often, the groups disguise their acerbic intentions with mom-and-apple-pie names.
"You want to have the spirit of 'who gave it and who got it' tied in with the election cycle," said Mark Herron, a Tallahassee election-law attorney who mainly works with Democrats and represents election committees.
Still, the law isn't perfect, say Herron and critics of the campaign-finance system.
An Electioneering Communication Organization can accept money from other groups that don't have to disclose their individual donors, so it could still be impossible to figure out the exact identities of people behind an attack ad until an election is over.
Also, the organizations are only regulated by the state 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.
So that means groups like the Virginia-based Alliance For America's Future can operate with almost no state oversight right now because the primary is three months away. Little is known about the group, which is classified as a 501c4 under the federal tax code. Its name only appears on one IRS document because it is affiliated with another group, Partnership For America's Future, which is a 527.
A 501c4 barely has to disclose its donors. And 527s often reveal their records after an election.
The alliance has spent about $1 million for a 30-second television commercial called "Fraud'' that attacks Rick Scott, a Republican candidate for governor who headed a hospital chain that was hit with a record $1.7 billion Medicare-fraud fine. A copy of the ad obtained by the Times/Herald shows it was produced by a consultant for Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican running against Scott.
Unlike federal campaign-finance law, Florida law lets state candidates coordinate their campaign efforts with the third-party groups, which can be a big help to incumbents. They can direct donors, who have maxed out their donations of $1,000 per election, to contribute unlimited amounts to an election group that can attack an opponent or boost their own profile.
The state used to regulate electioneering groups, but a federal judge in 2008 said the state's Electioneering Communication Organization law was too sweeping and violated the First Amendment. So lawmakers hashed out this scaled-back legislation.
Bert Gall, the attorney who sued the state on behalf of a condominium group, said the new law is "an improvement," but he wondered if it was still too burdensome for community organizations that just want to opine about political issues.
"A lot of people are going to throw up their hands and say I can't afford the lawyers and accountants," Gall said.