Back in June, a narrowly divided U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the 2010 Citizens United ruling that opened the floodgates to unlimited, undisclosed campaign spending. Without discussion or debate, the court issued a terse statement that further cemented our view that a majority of justices are in the dark about how modern elections work.
For illumination, we hope they watched the PBS “Frontline” special “Big Sky, Big Money” on Tuesday night. It’s available online at pbs.org. Montana was the state that brought this year’s Citizens United challenge, and it was the focal point of Tuesday’s program, which was assisted by ProPublica reporter Kim Barker, who used to work at The Spokesman-Review.
In its Citizen United ruling, the Supreme Court said that independent spending wasn’t a corrupting influence, but as the Frontline investigation showed, this “dark money” may not be independent. Documents found in a meth lab near Denver show how outside groups possibly coordinated with Montana campaigns to produce election hit pieces. A group called Western Tradition Partnership out of Washington, D.C., appears to have spearheaded this effort.
These hit pieces go beyond “issue ads,” which nonprofit outside groups are allowed to run without disclosing donors. One particularly despicable mailer came from a group called Mothers Against Child Predators. This was just days before the 2008 primary election, and the target was Rep. John Ward, a Republican legislator, who ended up losing to a more conservative candidate who was largely unknown.
WTP is now called American Tradition Partnership, and it recently started a “newspaper” called the Montana Statesman. The front page touts a founding date of 1889. The articles are a series of candidate smears. Frontline and ProPublica also found that WTP may have lied to the Internal Revenue Service on its application for tax-exempt status. WTP told the agency it might lose a big donor if the process weren’t expedited. The “donor,” a Montana furniture store owner, said he had never heard of WTP.
A century ago, Montana passed the Corrupt Practices Act to address the direct purchase of power and influence. Back then, state legislatures selected U.S. senators, and William Clark, one of the “Copper Kings,” essentially bought his seat. The state had direct evidence then – and it has it now – of the corrupting influence of political expenditures. But Citizens United has gutted the state’s anti-corruption law.
Jim Bopp Jr., of Indiana, led the successful fight to have dark money groups covered by the First Amendment. He told Frontline that people don’t care where the money comes from, but Frontline had no trouble finding Montanans to refute him. Meanwhile, Idahoans are showing keen interest in a nonprofit, Education Voters for Idaho, that has been forced to divulge its financiers.
Momentum for shining a light on shadowy campaign groups is growing, but citizens must continue to refute the fiction that they don’t care. Only then can the ultimate victory be achieved: full disclosure of campaign spending in whatever form it takes.