By Phill Brooks
The Missouri Ethics Commission has struck another blow against "dark money." The term describes money spent on behalf of candidates and ballot issues using a legal loophole that avoids disclosure of the real contributors.
In the 1976 "Citizens United" decision the U.S. Supreme Court held that the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment of free speech precluded government restrictions on political spending by private organizations. That decision allowed "independent" organizations to spend unlimited amounts of money advocating for or against ballot issues and candidates. And because these organizations are not political committees, they are not under campaign contribution limits.
But "independent" means only that the organization cannot coordinate with a campaign committee in spending as much as it wants supporting a campaign. In fact, various news stories have identified "independent" organizations to the specific candidates or ballot issues being benefited.
It gets even darker because of the legislature's repeal of campaign contribution limits; these dark money organizations can contribute unlimited amounts to campaigns without disclosing the organizations' donors. Former Gov. Eric Greitens became the prime example for this dark money avenue.
In 2016, nearly $2 million of Eric Greitens' campaign funds came from an organization named "Seals for Truth" which did not disclose the organization's donors. Two years later, the Missouri Ethics Commission struck the first blow against dark money in a May 2018 advisory opinion.
The commission concluded that a Missouri non-profit organization becomes a political committee required to disclose its donors if it receives more than $250 from any one contributor or more than $500 in a calendar year "for the primary or incidental purpose of influencing or attempting to influence the actions of voters."
That opinion may have been sparked by a complaint filed by with the commission by Former Rep. Jay Barnes who chaired the House impeachment investigation of Grietens. Barnes charged that the Greitens' advocacy group "A New Missouri" formed to support the governor's policies effectively was promoting Greitens' campaign efforts.
Later questions arose in 2018 when A New Missouri provided $1.6 million to an organization supporting a ballot issue to overturn the legislature's "right to work" law that would have banned requiring workers to join unions or pay union fees. There was no disclosure as to where A New Missouri got that money.
The Ethics Commission's second blow against dark money came in January of this year. It involved a failed ballot issue alternative for legalizing medical marijuana that got major funding from a dark-money organization termed Missourians for Patient Care.
The Missouri Ethics Commission concluded that because Patient Care effectively was a political committee, it had to disclose its donors. It turned out to be a long list including the rich financier Rex Sinquefield and his wife.
These Ethics Commission actions came on the heels of inaction by the GOP-controlled legislature on bills dealing with dark money.
Republican opposition always struck me as inconsistent. Several years ago when Republican lawmakers repealed voter-approved limits on campaign contributions, a major argument was that disclosure of contribution sources was more important to voters than spending limits.
I understood that argument because of my experience with Mel Carnahan's gubernatorial campaign contributions in 1998—the last year before the contribution limits took effect. Analyzing Carnahan's contributions, I discovered Planned Parenthood was one of Carnahan's biggest contributors. It became a major issue. As governor, family planning funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood became one of Carnahan's major policy initiatives.
But that was before dark money made campaign finance reports far less meaningful because of the ways special interests get around contribution limits and disclosure requirements. Maybe, for the 2020 campaigns, these latest actions by the Missouri Ethics Commission will help shine a light for Missouri voters on special interest dark money.
But there is a potential limitation as to whether Missouri can require donor disclosure by an organization based in another state that spends on behalf of a Missouri candidate or ballot issue. Stay tuned.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.
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