SACRAMENTO -- With the election clock running out, a shadowy Arizona group redoubled its efforts Thursday to keep voters from learning who's behind the anonymous $11 million donation it recently made to influence two key California ballot measures.
But even as donors to the Phoenix-based Americans for Responsible Leadership remain a mystery, a clearer portrait of the group is emerging through its ties to the George W. Bush White House and top Republican fundraisers. Late Thursday, the group gave one more indication of its hardball approach to continue concealing its donors -- legal in Arizona, but a violation of California's campaign laws. It appealed a Sacramento judge's order aimed at revealing who was behind the millions of dollars it has pumped into the Golden State to fight Gov. Jerry Brown's tax-hike measure and prop up an anti-union proposition.
The Fair Political Practices Commission, the state's political watchdog agency, has filed a lawsuit to try to get the Arizona group to reveal the names of the donors. And on Wednesday, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge ordered the group to turn over emails and other communications with the business political action committee working to defeat Proposition 30, Brown's tax initiative, and pass Proposition 32, which would curb labor's ability to collect political money.
"That's what they've tried to do all along, to delay it until after the election," said Ann Ravel, the chairwoman of the FPPC, which immediately filed its own petition asking the state Court of Appeal to reject the request and order the group to hand over the documents.
The court will likely rule Friday on whether the group must relent, though attorneys for the Virginia-based law firm of Holtzman Vogel Josefiak could delay the process again by appealing to the state Supreme Court.
The managing partner of the firm is Jill Holtzman Vogel, who boasts ties to the administration of George W. Bush and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove.
A 42-year-old mother of six, Holtzman Vogel has been a state senator in Virginia since 2007 and is a rising star in the state's GOP circles. She has been the chief counsel for the Republican National Committee since 2004, when she was on the legal team for Bush's re-election campaign.
That came after serving as counsel for Bush and then-vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney during the presidential election recount of 2000, where she was on the ground in Florida to help secure Bush's victory over Vice President Al Gore.
Holtzman Vogel's firm shares the same Virginia address as American Crossroads, Rove's super PAC, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars this election season backing presidential candidate Mitt Romney and GOP congressional candidates.
Efforts to reach Holtzman Vogel were unsuccessful. Virginia state Republican leaders also did not return calls or emails.
All that's known about the Arizona group is that it has three officers, none of whom has shown any history of high-spending politics, or any relationship to the Small Business Action Committee, the California PAC that received the $11 million donation. The officers are:
Professor Zachary Smith, an expert in Arizona politics at Northern Arizona University, said Graham is the best known of the three.
"The others are probably known by the fundraisers and people on the inside, but they're not people well-known in politics. (They're) not people who've come across my radar," Smith said. "Most people think these guys are not the money, that there are other big players who want to remain anonymous."
He called the FPPC's lawsuit "kind of a blessing" for Arizona political observers because Arizona law offers no recourse for forcing such a group to disclose its donors. "What they're doing here is not illegal, like so many things in Arizona," Smith said.
Holtzman Vogel Josefiak is known for its specialty in creating and legally representing the kind of shell nonprofit political groups that have proliferated in this year's campaign -- and promises to be a major force in national politics in the future as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which allows unlimited corporate money to be spent on campaigns.
Much of that money has gone into 501(c)4 nonprofit groups, which are not required by the IRS to disclose the identity of their financial backers. The nonpartisan investigative organization Pro Publica estimates that $1 of every $4 in politics now goes through such nonprofit groups.
"Because people recognize that corporations and wealthy individuals are a turnoff, there's a more elaborate effort to use (c)4s to not become an electoral liability," said Bruce Cain, a Stanford University political-science professor. "What's new is making it harder to figure out where the interests are and who's behind it by using the (c)4s."
Holtzman Vogel's husband, Alex Vogel, is also a partner in the firm -- and has his own rising profile as a partner in a high-powered GOP lobbying firm.
Holtzman Vogel has also been in the middle of the culture wars driving the nation's political battles.
She was a vocal opponent of President Obama's health-care reform, warning a Virginia GOP group in June that the U.S. Supreme Court decision on its constitutionality was going to be a "huge and significant watershed moment."
"If the Supreme Court says this is OK, then that effectively means that there is no limit on the power of the federal government," she said. "It means there is virtually nothing that the federal government can't come into, occupy the field, and tell you what to do."
Earlier this year, Holtzman Vogel authored legislation that gave women seeking an abortion an option to see the fetus through an ultrasound image. But she later withdrew it when she realized language in the bill would have required controversial vaginal probes.
"It was never my intent to force a woman to have a vaginal screening against her will, only to ensure that women seeking abortions are fully informed and that current state-of-the-art safety procedures are followed," she said on the floor of the Virginia Senate.
Only last Friday, Mike Huckabee, the former presidential candidate, darling of conservatives and Fox News commentator, headlined a fund-raiser she and her husband hosted at their home.
Her firm has also been active in pressing cases of voter fraud, a central GOP strategy in this year's presidential campaign.
In a description of its services on its website, the law firm describes the kind of legal muscle it uses to fend off challenges such as the lawsuit by the FPPC.
"The legal and regulatory environment has become increasingly complex and more individuals and advocacy groups find themselves under aggressive scrutiny," the firm says. "Having served in national political party committees, presidential campaigns, Congress and the Executive Branch, our attorneys are uniquely qualified to assure clients that their activities will withstand the most intense review."
In its online pitch to clients, Holtzman Vogel Josefiak touts its work for tax-exempt organizations, which "play an increasingly significant role in educating the public and influencing public policy."