A lawyer for President Obama filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission Tuesday demanding that Karl Rove's nonprofit Crossroads GPS disclose its donors, according to the New York Times.
The demand is a result of a federal appeals court ruling last week that upheld FEC laws requiring nonprofits to reveal their donors if the group's "major purpose" is politics.
"Under the pretense of charitable activities, Crossroads has tried to shield its donors – wealthy individuals, and corporations who may be pursuing special interest agendas that are not in the national interest," the complaint reads.
"Political committees must disclose their receipts and expenditures in full… For these disclosure purposes, Crossroads is a political committee: this is clear from the test approved by the court that the FEC must now apply."
The complaint asks the FEC to apply the test to determine whether Crossroads GPS is a political group or an educational "social welfare" group, as it claims. A ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals last week found that the FEC's test in such cases is not unconstitutional, as a group called The Real Truth About Obama had claimed. That ruling opened the door for complaints or requests that certain groups be subjected to the FEC's test on whether they are political
Crossroads GPS is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, which under current law means it does not report its donors nor its spending. As long as the FEC does not deem that the group's primary purpose is politics, it will continue to raise and spend in secret. And the group is spending: its own website details the multimillion dollar ad campaigns it conducts that criticize Obama and Democratic candidates.
But it is not the only 501(c) group involved in politics, says Crossroads GPS' communications director, Jonathan Collegio.
"If Obama really cared about campaign law, he would have sent letters to Priorities USA and the League of Conservation Voters and other non-disclosing liberal 501(c)(4)s," Collegio said in a statement. "He only cares about silencing conservative groups that are holding him accountable for his failed record."
Nonprofit 501(c) groupsmake up a considerable portion of political spending. One study found that in the 2010 election cycle 501(c) groups spent $95 million, while oft-publicized Super PACs spent $65 million. Conservative 501(c) groups like Crossroads GPS spent $78 million of that—five times as much as liberal ones. The amount of money spent might explain why a similar complaint hasn't been filed against a liberal 501(c) organization, says Rick Hasen, a professor of campaign finance at UC-Irvine.
"Romney is free to file one, but I don't expect to see it because, at least so far, Republicans have been the main beneficiary of this shadowy spending," he says.
A complaint from either side may be too late for this year. The complaint filed by the Obama campaign asks for a ruling before Election Day so that "voters are operating with full information about the political interests behind what they have seen on the airwaves." Given the FEC's standard operating pace, that likely won't happen, Hasen says.
"If past practice is any guide, it will be about 2014 or 2015 before this issue is resolved," he says.
Seth Cilne is a reporter with U.S. News and World Report. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.