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A judicial hearing officer has reversed the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and held that the New York Civil Liberties Union and three other advocacy groups do not have to reveal their financial backers because doing so could put their supporters at risk.

In four separate decisions, the hearing officer, George Pratt, a former judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, said the JCOPE majority opinion was “clearly erroneous” and held that each of the groups had provided sufficient evidence to warrant an exemption from an ethics rule requiring organizations to disclose their funding sources.

JCOPE by a 5-3 vote had denied the applications of the NYCLU, the New York Women’s Equality Coalition, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms and Family Planning Advocates.

Pratt said the groups had sustained their burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that disclosure would “cause a likelihood of harm, threats, harassment or reprisals.” NYCLU, for instance, demonstrated a “phenomenon of retaliatory animus” over the last 15 years, including threats to a staff member when the group filed a lawsuit on behalf of an affiliate of the Ku Klux Klan to challenge an ordinance barring wearing masks in public (See Decision). Family Planning Advocates reported more than 100 incidents of harassing phone calls and emails, as well as vandalism (See Decision). New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms presented some evidence of threats to its staff, but relied largely on incidents involving affiliates and groups that share its antiabortion views (See Decision). Similarly, the New York Women’s Equality Coalition offered proof of incidents of harassment directed toward other abortion-rights groups (See Decision).

Pratt said the groups are entitled to an exemption under the criteria set forth under the state Lobbying Act. He also said, in all four decisions, that “an exemption … gives proper deference to the constitutional requirement to protect the First Amendment rights of citizens to express their views on controversial issues by providing financial support to organizations that further their favored causes.”