Citizens United vs. Clintons: The feud behind the court case

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Posted: Sep 08, 2015 1:47 PM
Citizens United vs. Clintons: The feud behind the court case

WASHINGTON (AP) — Nobody knows Citizens United quite like Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The name of the conservative advocacy group, which five years ago won a landmark Supreme Court case governing campaign finance, has become the preferred shorthand for talking about money in politics. That decision led to the creation of the super PAC — groups that can accept contributions of any size and will spend hundreds of millions to influence the 2016 election.

"I want to tell you, Citizens United was about me," the Democratic presidential front-runner said last month in Iowa. "Think how that makes me feel. A lot of people don't know that, but the backstory is eye-opening."

She aims to write the next chapter of that story.

After spending the first few months of her campaign bemoaning "secret, unaccountable money" in politics, Clinton came out Tuesday with proposals to roll back the effects of the court decision, a plan that includes pushing Congress to clamp down on secret donors whose money makes its way into elections. And a new campaign video touches on the backstory, asserting she wants to overturn the Citizens United ruling because "she knows firsthand what it's done to our democracy."

Clinton's relationship with Citizens United dates to her husband's first campaign for president.

As a small, upstart group in 1992, Citizens United published a paperback attacking Bill Clinton. The book, "Slick Willie," was part of a yearlong campaign to derail his presidential candidacy, which included stoking stories about Whitewater, a controversy about the Clintons' failed real estate development investments.

"We've been working consistently since 1992 on all things Clinton," said David Bossie, longtime president of Citizens United. "I have an institutional knowledge of the Clintons and how the Clinton machine operates and the individuals behind it."

It was no surprise, then, that as she began her first White House run in 2007, Citizens United made use of its Clinton archives.

The group, working with President Clinton's estranged adviser, Dick Morris, made a 90-minute antagonistic political documentary titled: "Hillary: The Movie." Its tagline: "If you thought you knew everything about Hillary Clinton, wait 'til you see the movie."

Promoted as a documentary, the film is heavy on commentary from Morris and others who oppose the Clintons, including conservative commentator Ann Coulter. People in the movie repeatedly call her unfit to be president.

But the Federal Election Commission blocked Citizens United's plan to promote the movie in television advertisements, saying the commercials amounted to an election-time message that would require disclosure of the group's donors to federal regulators and a message disclaimer at the end of each ad.

The group sued. While the legal case was pending, Citizens United showed "Hillary: The Movie" in a few theaters and sold it on DVD, two methods of distribution not regulated by the FEC. Meanwhile, Obama won the nomination and went on to win the White House that November.

Then the plot thickened.

Just after Election Day, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Citizens United case.

"The thing that they're most famous for is something they never set out to do," Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington group that advocates for stricter campaign finance rules, said of Citizens United.

In January 2010, the justices ruled 5-4 to strike down the ban on corporate and union election spending, preserving only the prohibition of those entities giving directly to candidate campaigns.

The decision touched off other court rulings and federal regulatory changes that gave rise to super PACs and boosted the impact of nonprofits — including Citizens United. Both kinds of groups not only may accept corporate and union money, but also are unbound by the $2,700-per-donor limits that candidate campaigns face.

Clinton's remarks in Iowa last month offer a preview of how she might weave this personal history into her broader call for a campaign finance overhaul.

"They took aim at me, but they ended up damaging our entire democracy," she said. "We can't let them pull that same trick again." She added: "Now I'm in their crosshairs again."

Indeed, Citizens United is at work now on "Hillary: The Sequel."

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Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Bykowicz on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/bykowicz