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Dark-money group asks judge to block bank records that would reveal donors

Lawyers for Let’s Preserve the American Dream said disclosing donors would “chill speech.”
Authorities take pictures of former state Senator Frank Artiles' car as they raid his home in Palmetto Bay on Wednesday, March 17, 2021.
Authorities take pictures of former state Senator Frank Artiles' car as they raid his home in Palmetto Bay on Wednesday, March 17, 2021.
Published Jan. 11

MIAMI — Lawyers for a dark-money group run by a prominent Republican operative asked a Miami circuit court judge Monday to block the release of bank records that would disclose its donors, arguing that the release of such information would violate donors’ constitutional rights and could “chill speech across the political spectrum.”

In a 12-page motion, lawyers for Let’s Preserve the American Dream, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit organization run by Ryan Tyson, argued that the bank records must remain secret because they contain privileged information protected by the First Amendment and Florida’s criminal procedure rules.

“Similarly, in today’s highly charged political climate, LPAD’s donors could face reputational and economic harm as a result of their association being made public,” the lawyers argued. “And, on a broader scale, disclosure in this case could chill speech across the political spectrum, as donors to other nonprofit organizations may choose to forgo future donations out of the fear that their association may one day be made public.”

The bank records were obtained by investigators who are examining potential election and campaign finance law violations stemming from a 2020 Miami-Dade election scheme. Investigators are also looking at $550,000 in untraceable money that paid for political mail advertisements in support of the sham candidates involved in the scheme.

Related: Prominent Florida political consultants may face criminal charges in sham candidate case

The half a million dollars in spending was paid for by another dark money group, Grow United. According to a 2020 tax return obtained by the Orlando Sentinel, Tyson’s group reported that it gave $1.15 million to Grow United in 2020.

The Sentinel later reported that records show Tyson instructed an accountant and banker to wire Grow United $600,000 on Sept. 29, 2020.

Days later, Grow United sent $550,000 to the two political committees that paid for the advertisements.

No charges have been brought against Tyson or his dark-money organization, and neither have been accused of wrongdoing, his lawyers said. They also said that Tyson voluntarily appeared for an interview with prosecutors to “demonstrate that LPAD complies with all state, federal and local laws.”

Unlike political committees, which are legally required to disclose their donors, dark money groups are not required by law to do so, which makes them useful for funders who don’t want their identities revealed when backing certain campaigns or causes.

Dark money groups also don’t have spending limits as a result of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which reversed campaign finance restrictions. These groups are used by Republicans and Democrats alike.

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A broad investigation

Let’s Preserve the American Dream is not the only target of prosecutors amid the ongoing investigation in Miami.

Prosecutors have also targeted Alex Alvarado, a Republican consultant; Dan Newman, a prominent Democratic fundraiser, and Richard Alexander, the chairman of the dark-money group Grow United.

On Dec. 23, 2021, each was sent what is known by prosecutors as a “prior to” letter, which generally precedes criminal charges in a case. As of Monday, no charges have been filed.

Prosecutors last year filed charges against Frank Artiles, a Republican operative and former Miami state senator, and auto-parts dealer Alexis Pedro Rodriguez, who investigators say was paid more than $40,000 by Artiles to run as a no-party candidate to sway the outcome of the 2020 Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 election.

Both men were charged with conspiracy to make or accept campaign contributions in excess of legal limits, accepting and making those excess campaign contributions, false swearing in connection to an election and aiding in (and eventually, submitting) false voter information. Under state law, each of those charges carry sentences of up to five years in prison if convicted.

Both pleaded not guilty in April and asked for jury trials. In August, Rodriguez took a plea deal and agreed to help prosecutors build their case against Artiles, the man who recruited him to run for office. In exchange for his guilty plea, Rodriguez will serve three years probation, including one year on house arrest with a GPS monitor.

Lawyers for Tyson’s organization argue bank records that would show donations and contributions from Let’s Preserve the American Dream, from February 2020 to August 2021, are “irrelevant” to Artiles’ case.

They further argue that the release of the records would only benefit reporters who “continue publishing fanciful stories insinuating that LPAD and Mr. Tyson participated in criminal conduct.”

Lawyers for the Miami Herald, along with several other news outlets, filed motions to intervene in previous arguments to protect records in this case.

The lawyers representing the media outlets confirmed Monday that they would oppose Tyson’s motion.

Ian Vandewalker, a senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said it makes sense why a 501(c)(4) would prioritize protecting its donors, noting that politically active groups like Let’s Preserve the American Dream may explicitly pitch to donors that their names would be kept secret.

“Some of the big super PACs at the national level have another organization that is the same people, just another piece of paper,” said Vandewalker, whose work addresses the influence of money in politics and foreign interference in U.S. elections. “They say, ‘You can give to us and we’ll disclose or you can give to the 501(c)(4) and we won’t.’”