SACRAMENTO -- In a unanimous and urgent decision, the state Supreme Court on Sunday ordered an Arizona group to immediately hand over documents related to its anonymous $11 million donation to a California business political action committee. But lawyers for the group immediately turned to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking yet another delay.
The quick-moving legal twists and turns are making for a hairpin finish to a political drama that has worn on for nearly three weeks. Aside from last-minute appeals in death penalty cases, the emergency weekend action by the state Supreme Court is considered extraordinary.
But the stakes were high and time was dwindling to bring the case to a head before Election Day Tuesday. And when the state's high court, on a 7-0 vote, denied a motion for a stay by attorneys for Americans for Responsible Leadership, their inaction may well have put them in contempt of court.
"It's quite a stunning action on their part," said Ann Ravel, chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state's political watchdog agency. "They're going so far to avoid disclosure to the public that they're spending a lot of money in attorney's fees to drag this issue out."
After a 3 p.m. conference call on Sunday between both sides and all seven justices, the court ordered the group to turn over all documents by 4 p.m., a deadline that came and went.
The Arizona group had appealed a ruling last week by a Sacramento County Superior Court judge, who had sided with the FPPC and the Attorney General's Office and ordered the document transfer. The state Court of Appeal had granted the stay, but its decision was overturned Friday by the state's highest court.
In a tweet, Attorney General Kamala Harris called the group's decision to ask the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay "outrageous."
"This is an effort to obstruct the process and run out the clock," she said.
Investigators and auditors for the FPPC were "poised to do an audit, ready to work through the night" to complete an investigation of emails, letters, texts, minutes and other communications between whoever was behind the donation to the Arizona group, Ravel said late Sunday.
A spokesman for the Arizona group's attorneys said they were disappointed with the ruling.
"We have been in contact with the FPPC in an attempt to comply with the order," said Matt Ross. "While we are working to deliver the records we still believe that the FPPC does not have the authority to take such action and have filed a request for immediate stay with the United States Supreme Court."
The donation, the largest anonymous contribution to a ballot measure campaign in California history, was made to the Small Business Action Committee, a conservative group running a campaign for Proposition 32, the measure that would curb labor's ability to collect political cash, and against Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's tax-hike initiative.
An FPPC audit would determine whether the state's campaign finance watchdog would order the group to disclose who its donors are. Whether it can do so before voters cast their ballots Tuesday remained unclear on Sunday night.
Attorneys for the Arizona group appeared determined to keep that information out of public view. In a letter to the emergency application clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court Sunday, attorney Thad Davis said the group's First Amendment rights were at stake, calling the court order a violation of their "due process and equal protection rights" by denying their ability to appeal before having to release confidential donor information, "a harm which cannot be undone or redressed on appeal."
David slammed Ravel and Gov. Brown for what he said were biased and politically motivated moves.
"Here, ARL contributed to an entity opposing the governor of California's top political priority -- Proposition 30," Davis wrote. "The chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission has made manifestly biased statements, politicizing ARL's contribution and compliance and the governor has compared ARL's donors to the Ku Klux Klan."
Davis was referring to comments Brown made to a San Mateo County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"I don't know where these people are from, because they're hiding, they're wearing masks," Brown said. "Remember the people who liked to run around in hoods because they didn't want people to see who the hell they are?"
Brown has made it a campaign rallying cry to "unmask" the people behind the group, whose law firm has deep ties to the Republican National Committee and the George W. Bush administration, first reported by this newspaper. Its offices are in the same building as American Crossroads, the super PAC of Karl Rove, Bush's former chief of staff and top strategist.
The Arizona group is a 501(c)4 nonprofit advocacy organization, which under IRS rules does not have to reveal donors' names. These groups have become prominent in this election cycle as hundreds of millions of dollars in political cash was unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision to allow unlimited corporate spending in campaigns.
As corporations and wealthy individuals became more involved, they have sought to keep their names concealed and have found the nonprofit groups an effective conduit to wielding influence without the potential backlash from consumers. They have spent one-fourth of all campaign cash this year, according to ProPublica, an independent investigative group.