Culture of Dark Money
December 21, 2012
The Huffington Post has reported that Macau casino magnate Sheldon Adelson actually spent $150 million in Campaign 2012, not the $100 million he had promised, or threatened. Adelson and his wife gave $54 million to committees that reported to the Federal Election Commission and spent the rest through 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations and (c)(6) business associations that didn’t report his contributions. He even managed to throw a million dollar stink-bomb at Debbie Stabenow through a boutique SuperPAC created just for the occasion.
In Michigan, 43 percent of the $18 million, eight-month television advertising campaign against the Obama administration and its policies was by sponsored by non-disclosing nonprofit corporations.
Michigan’s headline state candidate race was for our Supreme Court. In that campaign, the candidates raised and spent $3.4 million. The state political parties and a DC-based nonprofit corporation spent $11 million for television advertisements about the candidates in the last two months before Election Day. That television advertising wasn’t reported in the state campaign disclosure system. Those data are available from the public files of the state’s broadcasters and cable systems.
In the Michigan Supreme Court campaign, undisclosed outspent candidates, 3-1.
This is a big problem. Nobody has the motivation to spend big money in a judicial race like a litigant with a high-stakes case in the appeals pipeline. Imagine being in court opposing the person who financed the campaign of the justice who is going to decide your case. Imagine not knowing it, so you can’t make a legitimate motion for recusal. Dark money undermines the whole premise of judicial impartiality.
We are crazy to allow this cloud of dark money over our process for selecting justices.
Don’t take my word about this. The Judicial Selection Task Force chaired by Justice Marilyn Kelly and Senior Judge James L. Ryan of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized the peril of dark money in judicial campaigns. Conservatives and progressives on that panel made a consensus recommendation that all spending in Michigan Supreme Court campaigns should be disclosed to its source.
In case you missed it, Michigan also had the most disgraceful trial court campaign in the country this year. Five incumbents, of mixed partisan roots, and two challengers running for the Sixth Circuit Court in Oakland County raised and spent $725,000. Two non-disclosing DC-based nonprofits, Americans for Job Security and Judicial Crisis Network, paid for a $2 million media campaign attacking one of the incumbents and touting the ‘plan’ of the two challengers, who claimed to know nothing about the dark money ads. The stealth campaign failed miserably.
Most informed observers believe this was a case of a troubled, angry rich guy behind a (c)(4) mask who didn’t like the way a previous judicial decision had gone in that court. You know, “I don’t like that decision. I’m going to take you out and I’m going to leave no fingerprints.”
How would you like to be running for a judgeship with our generous allowance for unaccountable spending? Would you stand up to an angry rich guy and risk a $2 million kneecapping by an anonymous assailant?
Governor Snyder keeps an active 527 committee called the Governor’s Club. Apparently our constitutional executives feel a 527 is necessary equipment. Jennifer Granholm, Mike Cox and Terri Land had 527s. Rick Snyder, Bill Schuette and Ruth Johnson have them now.
The Governor’s Club discloses its donors and its expenditures. Since Governor Snyder took office, it has raised $563,000. It’s been used for things like a communications consultant and hotel rooms at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
The Governor also keeps a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization –New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify (NERD). It raised $1.3 million, just in 2011. We don’t know its donors, or its purpose, beyond “social welfare”. We haven’t seen yet how early legislative successes may have boosted NERD in 2012.
Why run a (c)(4) if you have a 527? The only difference is transparency. 527s disclose itemized receipts and expenditures; (c)(4)s don’t.
Dark money is baked into policy development, too. Many observers wonder who gave the Oxford Foundation the money to support the work of Richard McLellan as he developed a proposal for commercialization of public education. It would be rational for interest groups and individuals who are in the business of commercializing public education to support such a proposal, and if they did, citizens should know it. But we have no way to know whether those who stand to gain financially are the funders behind that proposal.
We are being swamped by a toxic wave of dark money. Accountability for the money driving our politics is withering.
Once upon a time, 10 years ago, the most strident political operative you knew would say, “Just let everybody spend as much as they want, and make them disclose it.”
These days everybody spends what they want, but a great amount, often a majority, is not disclosed. I can prove it. Dark money is proportionally bigger in Michigan politics than it is in national politics, Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity notwithstanding.
I understand that we’re living with a political culture that accepts, even celebrates dark money. Most citizens don’t. As Justice Antonin Scalia once wrote, “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
If we citizens won’t demand real accountability for money in our politics, we are surrendering governance to the invisible hand of self-serving wealth. Let’s require those who think elections and public policy are just commodities for sale to show some civic courage along with their bankroll.