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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Political influence is a public concern

Everybody talks a good game about government transparency, but political players keep making it easier for anonymous “dark money” donors to spread their influence.

Congress recently passed an omnibus spending bill with a rider that thwarts efforts to limit political activity by tax-exempt groups, and to reveal the names of corporate contributors. The tax code grants anonymity to contributors to “social welfare” groups, but in reality many of the activities are political in nature. An inspector general’s report on the Internal Revenue Service, which is supposed to police such activity, suggested tighter rules.

But the rider prevents the IRS from proceeding. Similarly, the rider blocks the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission from forcing disclosure of corporate political campaign contributions. Crackdowns by the IRS and SEC presented the best chance at shining more light on 2016 campaign activity because Congress is deadlocked on disclosure reform.

Already, groups that don’t disclose donors have spent 10 times more on 2016 federal election activity than they did on the 2012 election at the same stage, according to The American Prospect.

Secretive political activity in Montana provides a prime example for why this matters, and an aggressive state regulator has served up a rare glimpse into the identity of some behind-the-scenes players.

Montana has a proud tradition of illuminating political activity, passing the Corrupt Practices Act more than a century ago. But the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling gutted the law. Montana challenged the ruling but was rebuffed by the court in 2012.

Nonetheless, Montana’s commissioner of political practices, Jonathan Motl, challenged a group called the Montana Growth Network, run by a former state senator. Motl was alarmed by how much had been spent in the 2012 election on a state Supreme Court race, so he subpoenaed the organization’s bank records.

Then the Associated Press and other media outlets filed public records requests, and a light was finally shined on the wealthy contributors who were claiming private property rights trumped public access to waterways.

The state Supreme Court had rebuffed a bid by Jamie Cox Kennedy, board chairman of media giant Cox Enterprises, to have public access closed along eight miles of land he owns on the Ruby River. Kennedy was among 14 donors who gave nearly $1 million to Montana Growth Network between 2011 and 2013. Other donors included investment broker Charles Schwab and energy company executives. Schwab has also been involved in public-access litigation.

Strong laws on disclosure would prevent these roundabout efforts, which serve special interests but erode public trust. Battles like this are being waged across the country, but the financiers are under the radar.

If the public does not demand its political leaders pledge allegiance to see-through government, darkness will envelop more elections.

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