This Week In Local Dark Money News

When it comes to dark money — money spent trying to influence voters by groups that do not disclose their donors — the focus is often on the federal level. But a considerable amount of dark money is also going to state and local elections. Our weekly roundup looks at dark money spending at the local, state and federal levels.

The donors behind a nearly $2 million contribution to Missouri’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Greitens are still unknown, according to U.S. News and World Report. A super PAC known as SEALs for Truth gave the money to Greitens’ campaign during the primary season, but after June 30th, which meant the source of the donation would not have to be reported until October 15. Last week, however, SEALs reported to the Federal Election Commission that the money came from an organization known as American Policy Coalition, Inc. There is very little publicly available information about either group. The FEC filing lists Washington, D.C. post office boxes as the addresses for the groups.

The top dark money spender this cycle, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is working to defeat one of its former employees, Evan Bayh, in a hotly contested U.S. Senate race, The New York Times reports. The Indiana Democrat had worked for the Chamber from 2011, when he first left the Senate, until earlier this year. Republicans have used Bayh’s job as evidence that he is out of touch with the voters of his home state. And the Chamber has paid for ads attacking Bayh for his support of the Affordable Care Act. While Democratic leaders accuse the Chamber of playing partisan politics, the group says Bayh’s voting record did not qualify him for its endorsement.

New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is accusing a “dark money empire” — including Americans for Prosperity, the Heritage Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute — of running a campaign to try to discredit an investigation into claims that Exxon deliberately misled investors about the effects of climate change, Politico reports. Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey are looking into whether the oil giant committed fraud. Exxon says the two Democrats’ investigation is politically motivated and aimed at limiting the company’s right to free expression. Schneiderman, who has argued repeatedly that the First Amendment doesn’t cover fraud, claims he has been attacked in “60 or 70 op-ed columns or editorials” since the investigation was announced. He said, “It’s like they pulled a lever on the dark money machine.”

An investigation by MLive and the Michigan Campaign Finance Network found that a majority of nonprofit and administrative accounts linked to sitting state lawmakers have received donations from corporations or special interest groups, including those with business before the legislature. Although state law prohibits politicians from accepting money directly from companies, these accounts are legal because they don’t directly fund campaign work. In general, the nonprofits don’t have to disclose their donors; the administrative accounts are required to do so only if they have raised over $25,000. As part of their investigation, MLive and MCFN said they “examined hundreds of public filings with the IRS and self-disclosures on political giving made available by companies, as well as contacted fund administrators to determine their connections to state lawmakers.”

Groups from outside South Dakota are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into a ballot measure race that could reshape the state’s campaign finance laws, the Center for Public Integrity reports. Measure 22 would create a mechanism for providing some public funding for elections, establish an independent ethics commission to oversee state lawmakers, limit campaign contributions, and increase donor disclosure requirements. Two 501(c)(4) groups are playing a prominent role in the race. Represent.Us, a nonpartisan pro-transparency group based in Massachusetts, is running the campaign for the measure. A Virginia-based organization, Americans for Prosperity, which was founded by billionaires Charles and David Koch, is leading the fight against the initiative.

A complaint filed earlier this month with Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices has revealed tensions between two outside spending groups — and their leaders — involved in a state Supreme Court election, The Billings Gazette reports. The head of one of the groups, John Heenan, also serves as legal counsel for the Commissioner, without compensation, according to the Gazette. Heenan’s organization, Montanans for Experienced Judges, supports Judge Dirk Sandefur for the state’s highest court. Jake Eaton, a Republican political operative who filed the complaint, said that Heenan’s group failed to disclose that it gets nearly all of its money from attorneys. Eaton’s group, “Set Em Free Sandefur,” has attacked the judge for being soft on criminals. The Gazette reported that in response to the complaint, Heenan for a time on Wednesday changed the name of his organization to “Lawyers and Montanans for Experienced Judges,” until ten new donors who were not lawyers contributed money, allowing him to use the group’s original name again.

Campaign Finance Reform Emerges Briefly As Topic In Ugly Trump-Clinton Debate

Amid a presidential debate that focused as much on personal attacks as substance, the topic of campaign finance reform finally made a brief, if tangential, appearance in the high-stakes public forum.

Although the role of money in politics has been one of the top issues that voters want candidates to discuss, the topic hadn’t come up until Sunday night’s debate, the second in a series of three forums featuring both of the candidates.

Asked about potential litmus tests for Supreme Court appointments, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton told the town hall-style audience that she would select justices in favor of reversing the high court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. The decision, which allowed corporations and unions to spend on elections, has led to sweeping changes to the U.S. campaign finance system that allow big donors to bankroll outside groups to boost their favored candidates.

Clinton said she wants to “get dark, unaccountable money out of our politics,” referring to non-profit organizations that can spend unlimited amounts of money supporting or opposing candidates without publicly revealing their donors. The number of “dark money” groups approved by the Internal Revenue Service has surged after the Citizens United ruling. In the past, Clinton has warned of dark money “distorting our elections, corrupting our political process and drowning out the voices of our people.”

The former secretary of state, however, didn’t speak directly to the issue of super PACs, another byproduct of the Citizens United decision. Super PACs, which are regulated by the Federal Election Commission, can accept any amount of money and spend unlimited funds on elections, as long as they disclose their donors and don’t coordinate directly with candidates.

Super PACs supporting Clinton have raised more than $143 million this election cycle, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Priorities USA Action, the most well-funded super PAC supporting Clinton, has raised $133 million during the current election cycle. While the group has disclosed the sources of most of its funding, it received $1 million in untraceable donations last summer.

The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog organization, recently accused Clinton’s campaign of illegally coordinating with “Correct the Record,” another pro-Clinton super PAC. The group has claimed the limited scope of its expenditures means it doesn’t have to follow the federal election rules that prohibit outside organizations from coordinating activities with a campaign.

After the debate Sunday night, Republican nominee Donald Trump called Clinton a “hypocrite” on Twitter and said she is “the single biggest beneficiary of Citizens United in history, by far.” Even though Trump criticized the influence of outside groups during the Republican primary race, he currently benefits from the post-Citizens United world.

The billionaire real estate mogul’s campaign has close ties to two super PACs that are working to help him defeat Clinton. The two super PACs were the subject of another Campaign Legal Center complaint. The complaint argued one of the groups failed to follow rules designed to prevent campaign staffers from immediately joining a super PAC, and that the other had improperly shared common vendors with the Trump campaign.

Earlier this month, wealthy donors including Nevada casino magnate Sheldon Adelson announced they would pour tens of millions of dollars into another super PAC and a dark money organization to support Trump. So far, super PACs supporting Trump’s candidacy have raised more than $40 million.

Trump also touched upon money in politics issues at the debate, falsely claiming to be “pretty much self-funding” his campaign, as he has asserted many times over the course of the race. “By the time [the election] is finished, I’ll have more than $100 million invested,” Trump said.

Trump’s campaign has always received donations from individuals. While he did fund a significant portion of his primary race, he never promised to pay the entire bill for a general election race. Recently, his campaign has courted the support of the types of special interest donors he previously lampooned.

It’s unclear if Trump will meet the pledge he made Sunday night to invest $100 million in his presidential bid by the Nov. 8 election. As of the end of August, Trump had given $54 million to his campaign.


This Week In Local Dark Money News

When it comes to dark money — money spent trying to influence voters by groups that do not disclose their donors — the focus is often on the federal level. But a considerable amount of dark money is also going to state and local elections. Our weekly roundup looks at dark money spending at the state and federal levels.

The Supreme Court has declined to reopen an investigation looking into Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin’s relationship with dark money group Wisconsin Club For Growth, according to The Guardian. An original investigation into Walker’s connection to the group was shut down by the state’s conservative Supreme Court in 2015. As previously reported, The Guardian obtained a series of documents detailing how Walker’s recall campaign encouraged some wealthy individuals to support him by contributing to Wisconsin Club For Growth, so that the group acted as a “shadow campaign committee.” The decision was disappointing for campaign finance reform advocates, who had hoped the decision would lead to greater scrutiny of dark money and dark money groups.

An advocacy group in Maine has said more candidates are using public funds to run for office, Maine Public Radio reports. Maine Citizens for Clean Elections is reporting that 62 percent of candidates are using public funds this election cycle, compared to 53 percent in the 2014 cycle. At the same time, the group found that candidates’ use of private funds is down 22 percent compared to 2014. Public funding is often proposed by campaign finance reform organizations as an alternative to the large amounts of outside funding that have begun to flood elections. Right now, just 13 states have some form of public funding for primary or general election campaigns.

Higher campaign contribution limits in Arizona have not meant campaign funding is keeping pace with outside spending, including dark money, The Arizona Republic reports. Lawmakers in Arizona passed a law increasing the amount candidates could accept from a single donor tenfold in 2013, three years after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The regulation was meant to help candidates compete with outside money, which was expected to explode after the decision. However, even the increased contribution limit of $5,000 has not allowed candidates to keep up with spending on independent expenditures, which is essentially unlimited, and can come from national groups with powerful fundraising networks.

Community activists in Santa Clara, California, have accused the San Francisco 49ers of funneling money through a dark money group to oppose Mayor Lisa Gillmor and support candidates who were more friendly to the NFL team The Mercury News reports. The accusations arose because BLUPAC, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that does not have to reveal its donors, began running ads against Gillmore and council members who have been critical of the team. There is no evidence that the 49ers and the dark money group are linked however, and team officials have denied that they are connected.

This Week In Local Dark Money News

When it comes to dark money — money spent trying to influence voters by groups that do not disclose their donors — the focus is often on the federal level. But a considerable amount of dark money is also going to state and local elections. Our weekly roundup looks at dark money spending at the state and federal levels.

A federal appeals court in Alabama has upheld the state’s ban on PAC-to-PAC donations, the Montgomery Advertiser reports. The Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC) had sued to overturn the ban, arguing that  the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision barred the state from regulating such contributions. Although a lower court initially sided with the ADC, an appeals court said the Supreme Court’s ruling only applied to groups which only make independent expenditures, and not PACs, which can donate to candidates in addition to making independent expenditures. The federal appeals court ruling upholds the appeals court’s decision. The Alabama Legislature approved a law banning PAC-to-PAC donations in 2010, as the practice was often used to hide the true source of a political donation.

A Massachusetts ballot initiative on charter schools is attracting huge amounts of dark money, according to Nonprofit Quarterly. The website reports that more than $18 million has been raised in the battle over the initiative, which would authorize the approval of up to 12 new charter schools per year. Much of that money is from out of state, with one nonprofit lobbying group from New York, Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy, giving more than $6 million of the money supporting the initiative.

In Florida, a new group calling itself Citizens Against Corruption is fighting against a series of liberal dark money organizations, reports Politico. The group is targeting four organizations in the Sunshine State collectively known as The Florida Alliance: Florida Watch Action, America Votes, Florida Strong and Win Florida. However, information about Citizens Against Corruption itself is hard to find. The group is not registered as a political committee and questions from Politico about who is funding the group or how it is organized were not answered.

This Week In Local Dark Money News

When it comes to dark money — money spent trying to influence voters by groups that do not disclose their donors — the focus is often on the federal level. But a considerable amount of dark money is also going to state and local elections. Our weekly roundup looks at dark money spending at the state and federal levels.

A federal judge has determined that the conservative nonprofit group Citizens United must disclose information about its donors, or stop soliciting funds in New York, Reuters reports. The group had sued to stop New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman from enforcing rules requiring it disclose its donors, citing its first amendment rights. However, U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein found no evidence that donors would face public backlash or financial harm if donors were disclosed, and therefore ruled the group’s first amendment rights were not violated. Citizens United was the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC. The high court’s decision in that case allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections, provided they do so independent of candidates.

A joint study by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Wesleyan Media Project has found that outside groups have paid for nearly half of all ads in Senate races this cycle.The percentage is even higher in competitive races. Outside groups — including dark money groups that don’t have to disclose their donors — accounted for 80 percent of ads in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

The week has not been a good one for Democrat Ted Strickland, of Ohio. On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that top Democratic groups had delayed their ad buys in the state. The same day, The Hill revealed that a super PAC associated with the billionaire Koch brothers had canceled an ad buy supporting his opponent, Sen. Rob Portman. Strickland has fallen behind in recent polls in Ohio, and the moves by outside groups to pull or delay ad buys indicate that they are confident the race is becoming less competitive.

The Senate race in Nevada has become a proxy war between outgoing U.S. Senator Harry Reid and the Koch brothers, according to the New York Times. Sen. Reid is supporting Democratic nominee Catherine Cortez Masto, while the Kochs are supporting Republican Rep. Joe Heck. Freedom Partners Action Fund, Concerned Veterans for America, Americans for Prosperity and The Libre Initiative, all outside groups associated with the Kochs, are working to mobilize voters against Ms. Cortez Masto. Meanwhile the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC associated with Sen. Reid, is working to elect Cortez Masto, as are other outside liberal groups including the League of Conservation Voters. A poll taken in July indicates the race is too close to call.

“Dark Money” Groups More Likely to Sponsor Attack Ads

“Dark money” groups were more likely to pay for attack ads than other political organizations during the presidential primary season, a MapLight analysis has found.

Attack ads accounted for about 70 percent of the airings paid for by politically active nonprofits, according to the analysis of television ads identified as positive or negative. By comparison, fewer than 20 percent of airings paid for by all political groups were critical in tone.

The analysis of data from the Political Ad Archive, which tracked TV ads in 23 television markets in more than a dozen key primary states, offers a more detailed look at the emerging power of politically active nonprofits. The groups’ financial influence has grown since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. The ruling allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on political ads, as long as that spending was independent of candidates or campaigns.

Because “dark money” organizations are not required by law to disclose their donors, viewers often have no idea who is paying for the ads they see. A 2015 New York Times/CBS News poll found that 75 percent of all Americans believe such organizations should disclose the names of their political donors. Some research suggests that audiences feel more favorably about a candidate targeted by an attack ad when they know who is behind it.

Eclipsing Super PACs

Although they accounted for a small percentage of ads aired during the 2016 primary season, “dark money” groups have eclipsed super PACs as the entities most likely to use negative advertising, according to the analysis. A bare majority of super PAC-sponsored ads were negative.

The archive data show that nonprofit organizations paid for more than 4,000 airings of ads that were unambiguously negative or positive — less than 3 percent of all the spots aired in the 23 markets. Cumulatively, those airings took up about 2,100 minutes — roughly 34.5 hours, or almost a full day-and-a-half of viewing.

Super PACs, which can also accept unlimited contributions but must report them to the Federal Election Commission, paid for more than 33,000 airings of ads. More than a third of the spots that aired were negative, and many targeted Donald Trump.

Campaign committees, which must disclose donors and follow laws limiting the size of contributions, remain the largest sponsor of advertisements. Because they are so closely associated with individual candidates, they are traditionally the least likely political entities to air negative ads. In the key markets, campaign committees paid for about 100,000 airings of political ads. MapLight found that about one percent — or roughly 1,000 ads — were negative in tone.

Targeting Trump

A 30-second spot attacking the business record of Republican nominee Donald Trump was the most frequently aired negative ad sponsored by a “dark money” group. Club for Growth, a conservative 501(c)(4) organization, paid for the spot, which ran more than 500 times in the San Francisco, Orlando and Tampa-St. Petersburg markets over a two-week period in early March.

Florida media markets were especially popular for negative ads sponsored by nonprofits. The American Future Fund, a conservative-leaning organization that once had ties to the billionaire libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch, paid for almost 1,400 airings of attack ads in the central Florida markets of Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne and Tampa-St. Petersburg during the primary season. Most of the ads were aimed at derailing Trump’s candidacy and focused either on the alleged victims of his “Trump University” program or his affinity for profanity.


Methodology: MapLight analysis of Political TV Ad Archive data through Aug. 3, 2016. The markets in the Political TV Ad Archive include stations in Iowa (Des Moines-Ames; Cedar Rapids-Waterloo-Iowa City-Dubuque; and Sioux City), New Hampshire (Boston-Manchester), Nevada (Las Vegas and Reno), South Carolina (Columbia and  Greenville-Spartanburg), Colorado (Colorado-Springs-Pueblo and Denver), North Carolina (Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham-Fayetteville); Virginia (Roanoke-Lynchburg; Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News; and Washington, DC-Hagerstown), Ohio (Cleveland-Akron-Canton and Cincinnati), Florida (Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota; Orlando_Daytona Beach-Melbourne; and Miami-Ft. Lauderdale), California (San Francisco), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), and New York (New York City). More information about the data from the Political TV Ad Archive is available here.


Last Week in Local Dark Money News

When it comes to dark money — money spent trying to influence voters by groups that do not disclose their donors — the focus is often on the federal level. But a considerable amount of dark money is also going to state and local elections. Our weekly roundup looks at dark money spending in those races.

Dark money spending in state and local elections has soared, according to a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice. The report, which examined election spending in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, and Massachusetts, found that dark money contributions to super PACs in those states increased from less than $190,000 in 2006 to over $9.2 million in 2014. For many contests, however, dark money groups outspent candidates by investing around $100,000. The Brennan Center, which argues for overturning Citizens United, claims that outside spending “has veered from the vision of democratic transparency” the U.S. Supreme Court described in its ruling.

The U.S. District Court in Washington, DC had a hearing scheduled for Friday in a case that some are calling the next Citizens United. The Louisiana State Republican Party is suing the Federal Election Commission, claiming that state political parties should be allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, like Super PACs. James Bopp, who successfully argued the Citizens United case before the U.S. Supreme Court, is representing Louisiana’s state GOP. If the party wins, few restrictions will remain on how parties use money to influence federal elections, according to advocates for campaign finance limits.

A politically active nonprofit has entered the debate over how best to help more than 11,000 opioid abusers in Pennsylvania, the Reading Eagle reports. The nonprofit is the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania, which, according to the Eagle, is “a powerful industry lobbying group” that “has a major role in steering drug and alcohol legislation.” State lawmakers are debating whether $34 million in new funding should be focused on medication or long-term residential treatment programs. Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, a Republican, recently wrote in a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, that DASPOP has “unbridled control” over the the state’s Department of Drug and Alcohol programs. According to Scarnati, who favors medication-based treatment, DASPOP’s lobbying for residential treatment is not “based on sound science.” The governor’s office is preparing a response to the letter. Almost 2,500 people died of drug overdoses in Pennsylvania in 2014.

The city council in Austin, Texas has voted to tighten dark money regulations, the Austin American-Statesman reported. Under the new rules, politically active nonprofits will be required to disclose the names of contributors who give at least $500 to support a candidate or ballot measure. The requirement takes effect September 1.