November 7, 2012 in Opinion

Editorial: Lawmakers must shine light on dark campaign donations


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

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Amid the blizzard of political ads on Montana airwaves was this voiceover from a talking baby commenting on the contest between U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester: “I don’t know what smells worse: my diaper or Jon Tester.”

The correct answer is the ad itself and all that it represents about the changing landscape of political campaigns.

ProPublica reports that this tight Senate race featured more TV ads than any other in the country, a shocking 89,000 spots between June 1 and Oct. 21. Up to $40 million was spent on the race – about $60 for every Montana resident – and much of the money came from groups outside the state.

The diaper ad was purchased by a group called Americans Are Not Stupid, which was traced to Florida. Its donors are anonymous.

Perhaps because Washington wasn’t a battleground state for national elections, anonymous spending didn’t have a big impact here. But it’s just a matter of time. A group supportive of ballot initiatives in Idaho was forced to divulge its contributors.

The proliferation of “dark money” groups is the most corrosive development to spring from the U.S. Supreme Court’s dubious Citizens United ruling, which opened the floodgates to independent spending by groups ostensibly unaffiliated with campaigns. These outside groups run “issue” ads that look like campaign spots but skirt violations with carefully crafted language.

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan public interest outfit, reports that outside groups spent about $1 billion in this election cycle, and nearly $300 million of that was from dark money groups. Some underwriters of slimy ads aren’t so shy. Six people contributed more than $10 million apiece, and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife gave more than $50 million.

The practical effect of this deluge of money is that mudslinging is outsourced. A candidate can appear in the feel-good ads, while outside groups pummel his opponent.

Even when laws are violated, it’s difficult to nail the culprits, as a case in California shows. On Monday, just a day before the election, a court forced an Arizona group to divulge its contributors to an $11 million campaign regarding two ballot initiatives. But the labyrinthine nature of these transactions still left voters in the dark. The money started in Virginia, was shifted to Arizona and spent in California, where a state law passed in May mandates the disclosure of contributors.

California’s attorney general says finding out who wrote the checks will be difficult, but she believes it is a clear case of illegal money laundering. A criminal prosecution might get the attention of people secretly funneling money around the country. A crackdown on groups that abuse their nonprofit status to sway elections is overdue.

Lawmakers from both parties have been victimized. Now they have the motivation to act. If we don’t shine a light on these activities, the stench will grow worse next time.

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