The O. Zone

Lack of transparency in corporate campaign spending hurts us all at the polls

By David O. Williams
Real AspenApril 30, 2013

There is an argument – and a good one – that state lawmakers are spinning their wheels trying to figure out ways to shed light on the donors to so-called “issues groups” or “social welfare” nonprofits that are increasingly shaping state and local elections.

Such organizations are bringing big money into small-time politics with a chilling effect on who’s willing to run and serve in relatively thankless elected offices ranging from the state senate to county commissioner.

Attack ads from vaguely named groups with undisclosed donors have made all sorts of questionable claims during recent election cycles, smearing candidates on both sides of the political spectrum. The result has been an increasingly jaded voting populace that’s tuning out the noise and turning away from the polls.

I’ve been reposting on Real Vail and Real Aspen a three-part series on one such 501(c)4 nonprofit originally called Western Tradition Partnership and in 2010 renamed American Tradition Partnership by the former law firm of Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler.

The story of WTP/ATP is as compelling as they come in recent political history, with charges of illegal coordination with candidates, a grand jury probe in Montana and numerous controversial connections to Colorado – including what was dubbed the “most tasteless” mailer of the 2010 election cycle (the “You’re Fired! ads aimed at Snowmass Democrat Gail Schwartz).

WTP/ATP sued to overturn a 100-year-old campaign corruption law in Montana barring corporate spending – a decision that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and seen as a validation of the high court’s controversial Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate spending on campaign issues.

While Colorado lawmakers have bandied about so-called “dark-money” disclosure legislation for years, and Montana lawmakers recently saw a bill killed in committee, many observers on both the left and the right say it’s a federal issue.

A petition asking the Securities and Exchange Commission to draft a new rule requiring “publicly traded corporations to disclose to shareholders all of their political donations” has garnered nearly a half a million comments, according to the New York Times.

“Opponents claim the SEC is ill-equipped to deal with political matters and ought to focus on its core mission, which is to regulate corporations,” the Sacramento Bee wrote in an editorial Sunday. “That argument might carry weight if the Federal Election Commission were not bogged down in partisan fights, and if the Internal Revenue Service had not failed to police nonprofit social welfare organizations, which are little more than tax-exempt extensions of politicians, consultants and donors.”

The problem with so-called social-welfare organizations is that by law they can only maintain their tax-exempt status if their primary purpose is educational, not political, but the IRS spends more time scrutinizing your business expenses than trying to determine where these groups cross the line on political spending.

For daring to delve into these issues, which I’ve been following since a notorious Garfield County commissioners race impacted by outside oil money in 2008, I’ve been taking some shots from the right. A website called Colorado Peak Politics tries to paint one of my stories, which first appeared on the Aspen Business Journal website, as a one-sided hatchet job.

In fact, my stories, which gave plenty of ink to former GOP operative Scott Shires – the man who originally registered WTP in Colorado – point out that Democrats have been just as guilty of hiding behind disclosure loopholes as Republicans. As the twisted case of WTP indicates, however, the Dems are just better at playing the game cleanly.

Do I want to know the names of corporations that give to environmental nonprofits that help elect Democrats, and would I also like the know the amount of money those corporations are pumping into political campaigns? Absolutely. Just as I’d like to know the names of oil and gas companies that give to social welfare nonprofits that spend freely to sway elections. Wouldn’t we all like that information when we go to the polls or decide which companies to invest in?

The best part of the right-wing rant on CPP was a comment by my longtime colleague at Vail Beaver Creek Magazine, Joy Overbeck, who calls me a “wholly owned subsidiary of the Libtards.” Which I guess makes her a wholly owned subsidiary of the “Conservatards.” Or “Rushtards,” if you prefer. And a very politically bitter person for someone named “Joy” who lives in the Vail Valley. “Ruining our wonderful state,” indeed.

Regardless of our political affiliations, I think we’d all like to see the outside money stripped out of the political process – at least at the local and state level – and a bright spotlight of disclosure trained on businesses and individuals trying so hard to anonymously influence our elections. That could only enhance elections in our wonderful state.


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