The role of ‘dark money groups’ — legally called ‘social welfare nonprofits’ — in elections has enabled anonymous donations without political repercussions. One can donate to their hearts content to support a variety of causes which — were they publicly disclosed — could do direct harm to a person or company’s reputation, business, or employment. As with anonymous trolls on the internet, the feeling of invisibility — that they could never be caught — has driven these dark money groups to ever more extreme positions. Now, a Montana court’s decision may destroy these dark money groups’ ability to preserve their donors anonymity entirely.
The reason why these groups have been able to operate anonymously is partly due to laws prohibiting coordination between them and actual political entities, such as PACs, parties, or campaigns. Because these groups advocate issues, not particular candidates, they were allowed to keep their donors anonymous. When the Citizens United Supreme Court decision opened up the floodgates, unprecedented amounts of money flooded the system. Now, this handy money=laundering system may now be facing elimination.
A court in Montana has now forced the disclosure of donors to Western Tradition Partnership, a dark money group now renamed American Tradition Partnership, which was heavily lobbying for increasing pollution into US air and water supplies. While the Supreme Court of the United States did shoot down Montana’s long-standing anti-corruption laws, the decision did not preclude other actions.
In May 2011, a routine bust of a drug lab in Colorado added a whole new dimension to the American Tradition Partnership case. Inside, police found files on 23 conservative candidates Montana state races, including surveys of positions, fliers, and — most importantly — bank records showing active coördination between ATP and its candidates. This is strictly forbidden for dark money groups, such as ATP. As a result, the Montana court ordered on Friday the release of the banking and donor records for the group, citing that — due to the evidence of collusion — the group no longer qualified as a non-profit able to shield its donors. These documents revealed not only collusion with candidates in Montana, but a direct tie to the Ron Paul 2012 campaign, as seen in this particular document:
These statements detail ties between the group and The Conservative Action League, another dark money group run by Ron Paul’s campaign manager, Jon Tate. Tate was also listed as working for ATP, and records showed money from ATP being sent to Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty. The money was laundered through these groups in such a way as to undermine the democratic process. One example of such a laundering operation. The group Coloradans for Economic Growth sent then WTP $500,000 for the 2008 campaign. WTP responded by transferring this money to the anti-union group, National Right to Work Committee, which then passed this money on to candidates and other lobbying operations. Where did the money come from? It matches a prohibited $500,000 donation from the Republican National Committee, which they had attempted to give candidates in Montana shortly before the initial money transfer. Then the NRTWC spent that money influencing their elections. Despite the lack of concrete evidence, the timing of the money transfers look very suspect.
Many of the people and groups which donated to ATP are now upset at having been revealed. The face for this, along with over 600 over such organizations, is Scott Shires, a Colorado native. When asked about the fund donors being revealed, Mr Shires had this to say:
It’s a game. There are people that don’t want their names connected to certain committees, and I was the public name period. And that was case with WTP.
In other words, an admission that this was a money laundering operation, not a legitimate political agency or a group concerned with social welfare.
Freedom of speech does not give one the freedom to yell fire in a theatre, or to call 911 without an emergency, nor to use one’s speech to trick someone out of money and property. That these donors sought anonymity in the first place tells us that they knew that what they were doing was wrong, either morally or legally, and were attempting to hide their involvement. This is not freedom of speech, it is a crime. And it is a direct attack on our nation itself.