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What’s the big secret?

Among the things that went down while I was off eating cheese and swilling champagne was the revelation that the folks behind the anti-Metro referendum group don’t want you to know who they are.

Texans for True Mobility has declined since Monday to release statements about the money it has collected and spent in its campaign to defeat the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Nov. 4 expansion referendum.

State Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, a member of the group’s advisory board, said that in general, political contributions should be open for public review.

“It is always good when people disclose,” Janek said. “When you get into these political issues, I think disclosure is better than nondisclosure.”

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill, also a TTM adviser, said he would have no problem disclosing the names of contributors who don’t specifically ask to remain anonymous.

Texans for True Mobility, led by developer Michael Stevens, has blitzed voters with advertisements this week trashing Metro’s expansion plan, the centerpiece of which is a $640 million bond issue to add 22 miles of light rail by 2012.

How is it that they are getting away with this? By exploiting a loophole, of course.

Advocates for open political campaigns decried TTM’s decision to form two separate entities bearing the same name: a nonprofit corporation to “educate” voters about the flaws in Metro’s plan and a political action committee to “advocate” for the referendum’s defeat.

Donations to nonprofit corporations are not required to be disclosed under state election laws. Contributions to political action committees, on the other hand, must be disclosed.

TTM’s nonprofit arm funded the initial ad blitz, which is why the group said it did not file a campaign finance disclosure by Monday’s deadline. But those ads cross the line from education into advocating against the Metro plan, several observers said Thursday.

A four-page color mailer from TTM arriving in mailboxes this week, for example, has phrases such as, “Metro’s Rail Plan: Costs Too Much … Does Too Little,” “What’s Wrong With Metro’s Plan? Just About Everything,” and “We cannot afford to waste these precious public dollars.”

I cannot understand how this mailer could be considered anything but advocacy. I know there are certain magic words that turn an “informational” piece into one that calls for a specific vote, but anyone who could read TTM’s mailer and not conclude that TTM really really thinks you ought to vote against Metro’s proposal is someone who would flunk the fourth-grade TAKS test on reading comprehension. But this is the fig leaf that TTM is hiding behind.

TTM responds it has a First Amendment right to speak out on a plan proposed by a government agency so long as does not advocate “vote no Nov. 4” or “kill this plan.” Andy Taylor, the group’s attorney, said it is carefully following the Texas Election Code.

Though the code appears on its face to broadly require disclosure of any spending “in connection with an election on a measure,” Taylor said, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled such a provision is unconstitutional unless interpreted to ban only spending advocating for passage or failure.

If the name Andy Taylor sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the guy who’s defending the Texas Association of Business against allegations currently being investigated by Travis County DA Ronnie Earle that they broke campaign finance laws last year in supporting Republican candidates for the state House. As in that case, Taylor is zealously protecting corporations from having to disclose the nature of their contributions, something that led to some TAB officials being cited for contempt after getting an unfavorable ruling from a state judge.

I suppose one can believe in the principle of a First Amendment right of corporations to make secret campaign contributions, but I personally think it’s nuts. As Bob Stein alludes to in this article, the only conclusion that I can reach is that these folks don’t want to let the masses know what they’re up to, presumably because we wouldn’t like it if we did know.

Of course, by the time the courts and our toothless Ethics Commission rule on this, we’ll all have forgotten about it. The Chronicle is trying to get a list of these contributors and has asked Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal to investigate, but he won’t reveal anything till after the election. In short, TTM can thumb its nose at all of us and has nothing to worry about. That’s democracy for you.

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