To grasp the clear and present danger that the current flood of campaign cash poses to American democracy, consider the curious case of Post Office Box 72465. It demonstrates that the explosion of super PAC spending is only the second-most troubling development of recent campaign cycles.
Box 72465, on a desert road near Phoenix, belongs to a little-known group called the Center to Protect Patient Rights. According to reports by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Los Angeles Times, the center funneled more than $55 million to 26 Republican-leaning groups during the 2010 midterm election.
Where is the money from? The Times found links to the conservative Koch brothers, yet because the center is a nonprofit corporation, it is impossible to know. Such groups must disclose how they distribute their money, not who donates to them.
This privacy makes sense in the context of ordinary nonprofits. But in the push-the-envelope world of modern campaigns, in which such groups spend millions of dollars on thinly disguised campaign ads, the result is an end run around the fundamental principle of campaign finance law: that voters are entitled to know who is trying to influence elections.
Even the Supreme Court understands this: Disclosure, it wrote in its otherwise appalling 2010 Citizens United ruling, “permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
Except when, as in the case of the Center to Protect Patient Rights, the identities — and motives — of those giving are hidden from public view. The center sent almost $13 million to the American Future Fund, a Des Moines-based group that ran campaigns against two dozen Democrats in 2010. Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) was targeted with what the Times described as “a $2-million fusillade” of radio ads, robo-calls and mailers.
“It was almost a feeling of helplessness because there was no way to identify who the source of the funds was,” Braley said. He won by two percentage points, after a 29-point margin two years earlier.
The gusher of secret money that nearly toppled Braley promises to be even more abundant this year — and the groups behind the undisclosed cash remain determined to do whatever it takes to keep the sources hidden.
In March, ruling in a lawsuit brought by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a federal judge found that the Federal Election Commission was wrong to exempt nonprofits and other groups that run “electioneering communications” — advertising that names specific candidates within a short time before the election — from having to reveal their donors.
It says something about the FEC that the agency charged with overseeing campaign reporting would come out against disclosure.
Luckily, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson disagreed. “Congress intended to shine light on whoever was behind the communications bombarding voters immediately prior to elections,” she wrote. The federal appeals court in Washington refused to stay the ruling while an appeal was underway.
The response from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was telling: It would switch its way of influencing elections rather than reveal its donors. The chamber, which has made itself a major political player, plans to spend more than $50 million during the 2012 campaign.
At a breakfast with reporters this week, chamber officials said that, in reaction to the ruling, the organization would conduct its political spending through independent expenditures that explicitly support or oppose particular candidates.
Such is the perverse mess that is the current campaign finance law. Under the Citizens United ruling, corporations, such as the chamber, can make unlimited independent expenditures. The upshot is that advertising like the chamber’s can be even more brutal — because it won’t have to pretend to be merely “educating” voters — and just as opaque.
Meanwhile, the American Future Fund, the organization that ran ads against Braley, has brazenly asked the FEC to approve a different end run. The group contends that if its ads merely mention “the administration” or “the White House,” they would not be attacking a “clearly identified candidate” and therefore not subject to disclosure requirements.
This would be laughable — if it were not such a scary illustration of the lengths to which these groups will go to avoid letting voters know who is trying to buy their elections, and the unfortunate likelihood that they will succeed.
By: Ruth Marcus, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 31, 2012
Does it bother you that an online casino paid a Utah woman, Kari Smith, who needed money for her son’s education, $10,000 to tattoo its Web site on her forehead?
Or that Project Prevention, a charity, pays women with drug or alcohol addictions $300 cash to get sterilized or undertake long-term contraception? Some 4,100 women have accepted this offer.
Michael Sandel, the Harvard political theorist, cites those examples in “What Money Can’t Buy,” his important and thoughtful new book. He argues that in recent years we have been slipping without much reflection into relying upon markets in ways that undermine the fairness of our society.
That’s one of the underlying battles this campaign year. Many Republicans, Mitt Romney included, have a deep faith in the ability of laissez-faire markets to create optimal solutions.
There’s something to that faith because markets, indeed, tend to be efficient. Pollution taxes are widely accepted as often preferable than rigid regulations on pollutants. It may also make sense to sell advertising on the sides of public buses, perhaps even to sell naming rights to subway stations.
Still, how far do we want to go down this path?
• Is it right that prisoners in Santa Ana, Calif., can pay $90 per night for an upgrade to a cleaner, nicer jail cell?
• Should the United States really sell immigration visas? A $500,000 investment will buy foreigners the right to immigrate.
• Should Massachusetts have gone ahead with a proposal to sell naming rights to its state parks? The Boston Globe wondered in 2003 whether Walden Pond might become Wal-Mart Pond.
• Should strapped towns accept virtually free police cars that come laden with advertising on the sides? Such a deal was negotiated and then ultimately collapsed, but at least one town does sell advertising on its police cars.
“The marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives,” Sandel writes. “We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.”
“Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”
This issue goes to the heart of fairness in our country. There has been much discussion recently about economic inequality, but almost no conversation about the way the spread of markets nurtures a broader, systemic inequality.
We do, of course, place some boundaries on markets. I can’t buy the right to cut off your leg for my amusement. Americans can sell blood, but (perhaps mistakenly) we don’t allow markets for kidneys and other organs, even though that would probably save lives.
Wealthy people can, in effect, buy access to the president at a $40,000-a-plate dinner, but they can’t purchase a Medal of Freedom. A major political donor can sometimes buy an ambassadorship, but not to an important country.
Where to draw the lines limiting the role of markets isn’t clear to me, but I’m pretty sure that we’ve already gone too far. I’m offended when governments auction naming rights to public property or sell special access, even if only to fast lanes on a highway or better cells in a jail. It is one thing for Delta Air Lines to have first class and coach. It is quite another for government to offer first class and coach in the essential services that government provides.
Where would this stop? Do we let people pay to get premium police and fire protection? Do we pursue an idea raised by Judge Richard Posner to auction off the right to adopt children?
We already have tremendous inequality in our country: The richest 1 percent of Americans own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. But we do still have a measure of equality before the law — equality in our basic dignity — and that should be priceless.
“Market fundamentalism,” to use the term popularized by George Soros, is gaining ground. It’s related to the glorification of wealth over the last couple of decades, to the celebration of opulence, and to the emergence of a new aristocracy. Market fundamentalists assume a measure of social Darwinism and accept that laissez-faire is always optimal.
That’s the dogma that helped lead to bank deregulation and the current economic mess. And anyone who honestly believes that low taxes and unfettered free markets are always best should consider moving to Pakistan’s tribal areas. They are a triumph of limited government, negligible taxes, no “burdensome regulation” and free markets for everything from drugs to AK-47s.
If you’re infatuated with unfettered free markets, just visit Waziristan.
By: Nicholas Kristof, Op Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 30. 2012
At my father’s funeral, the presiding minister, Ebb Munden, was a man who had been one of my dad’s closest friends. Ebb talked about how the last time he had gone to see my dad before he lost consciousness, he had been very emotional but that my dad had comforted him by gripping his hand and telling him it would be alright, that my dad was at peace and Ebb should be too. The lesson was that even at our physically weakest we could still be helping other people and making things better in the world.
I was thinking of that this past weekend when I went to see my brother Kevin back home in Lincoln, Nebraska. Kevin is one of those people who followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy would call a leech on society — Rand believed that people with disabilities were leeches and parasites on society, and that the “parasites should perish.” Kevin’s birth father broke a chair over his head and gave him brain damage, making him developmentally disabled and making it hard for him to speak clearly. He came to my family when we were both 11 years old, and has been not only my brother but one of my closest friends ever since. As an adult in recent years, his body has continued to betray him as he is hard of hearing, can’t see well, and has muscular dystrophy. Recently he had to go into the hospital for major surgery and then developed pneumonia — his muscular dystrophy makes it especially tough to recover from all this.
For all of that, though, Kevin still contributes to the world around him, just as he always has. He has always shown great tenderness to the people around him, and still does. He can’t talk right now because he is on a ventilator, but his expressive hands still say a great deal. After I was watching him go through strenuous rehab exercises, I came over to him after he was done and asked how he was doing, and he just grinned and patted me on my too-big tummy, not only telling me he was okay, but that maybe I should be doing more exercise too. Even with all the tubes attached to him, he was still up for playing catch with a plastic ball in his room. He still had smiles for, and played ball with, a 5-year-old girl who came to see him. One of the nurses at the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital told me how touched she had been when he gave her a hug even though she was doing painful rehab exercises she knew he didn’t like. He still gave me all kinds of trouble, taking delight in showing me two stuffed dogs people had given him because he had named the big dog Kevin and the little dog Mike. And when I had to leave to go the airport and had tears in my eyes as I was leaning down to hug him goodbye, he rubbed my head to comfort me. I had come to comfort him in his time of pain, and he had comforted me even more. Kevin being a part of my life has been such a gift to me, and has made me 100 times better a person.
Kevin has also shaped my values and philosophy of life, and given me a perspective on policy issues. Conservatives are obsessed with the idea that somewhere, somehow there are lazy “undeserving” welfare recipients, but more than 90 percent of government support dollars go to the elderly, people working hard but are still below the poverty line because of low-wage jobs, and very disabled people like Kevin — those whose middle-class families like mine would be plunged into poverty if we had to pay for all their medical costs on our own.
It is Kevin who I think of when I see that the Ryan-Romney budget slashes money from Medicaid and from the Social Services Block Grant, a fund specifically targeted to help states meet the needs of their most vulnerable citizens. It is Kevin who I thought about when the audience at a Republican debate cheered about a man who had no health insurance dying. It is Kevin who I thought of when an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference laughed and cheered when Glenn Beck gleefully proclaimed that “in nature, the lions eat the weak.”
A society that does not value my brother Kevin at least as much as it does the Wall Street titans who grow rich as they speculate with other people’s money, and use the tax code to write off the debt they use to buy and sell companies regardless of the consequences to the families who work there, is a sick society. A government that would cut support to middle-class families trying to support their disabled children so the wealthy can get more tax breaks — a government that actually decides to help the wealthy and powerful more than the poor and disabled — would be a government with no decency. That is what Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and the Republicans are proposing for us. Their hero Ayn Rand would be proud.
I have many reasons for working to oppose Romney’s policies. I think his economic policies are a disaster for an economy still weakened by allowing Wall Street to run roughshod over the rest of us for the first decade of this century. I’d like for people to have access to contraceptives, and all of us to have access to quality health care. The idea of appointing more Supreme Court Justices who support cases like the Citizens United ruling that have allowed “corporations are people, my friends” is destructive to our democracy. But even if all of that wasn’t there, I would only need one reason to oppose Romney’s policies, and his name is Kevin.
By: Mike Lux, Partner, Democracy Partners, Published in The Huffington Post, May 29, 2012
Minnesota’s Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board will investigate whether the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) should be registered as a lobbyist in the state, according to a letter sent to Common Cause-Minnesota. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has also asked Wisconsin’s ethics board to investigate ALEC’s activities, and this month the Wisconsin Attorney General referred a joint complaint about ALEC’s lobbying — by CMD and Common Cause-Wisconsin — to the state ethics board.
Response to Common Cause’s Complaint in Minnesota
Common Cause-Minnesota filed two requests for investigation in recent months presenting evidence that ALEC lobbies state lawmakers to pass “model legislation” voted on by corporations and legislators at ALEC meetings. The Board has responded to the first complaint, which alleged that despite participating in lobbying, ALEC has failed to register as a lobbying organization. The Board says it “will investigate.”
“Corporations can no longer hide behind ALEC as they try to influence state law behind closed doors,” said Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause-Minnesota. “This investigation should expose how ALEC has attempted to avoid laws that regulate lobbyists in Minnesota,” Dean said.
ALEC has come under increased scrutiny in recent months for its role in promoting as a national “model” the Stand Your Ground/Shoot First law cited in the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, as well as other bills that make it more difficult for American citizens to vote, for workers to organize and bargain, and for regulatory agencies to protect the environment and health.
Common Cause-Minnesota filed a second complaint with Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson alleging that, because of ALEC’s substantial lobbying, it is in violation of state laws limiting such activities by charities. To date, Common Cause has filed similar requests for investigation in 37 other states.
On May 17, Common Cause-Wisconsin and the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) filed a similar letter with Wisconsin’s Attorney General requesting an investigation into whether ALEC’s lobbying activities violate its charitable status, which was referred in part to the state ethics board. The letter was filed as part of a larger report detailing how ALEC facilitates corporate influence in the state, and counting more than 32 bills or budget provisions introduced in the 2011-2012 session reflecting ALEC model legislation. That report, “ALEC Exposed in Wisconsin: The Hijacking of State,” can be viewed here.
GAB Investigation in Wisconsin
Earlier this year, CMD requested that Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board (GAB) determine that ALEC’s so-called “scholarship program” violates state ethics and lobbying laws.
In a complaint filed March 23, CMD described how the program allows global corporations to pay for ALEC member legislators’ travel to resorts for ALEC meetings, which would appear to violate Wisconsin laws prohibiting elected officials from accepting anything of value — even a cup of coffee — from corporations that employ lobbyists in the state. CMD also noted that while at ALEC meetings, legislators are offered invitations to corporate-sponsored receptions and given additional gifts like free tickets to the party box at a major league baseball game. CMD named all known Wisconsin ALEC members in the request because complete records about which lawmakers accepted these gifts in recent years are not publicly available.
ALEC subsequently disclosed that in 2010, it had asked the GAB to sanction these corporate-funded gifts, but offered a description of the so-called “scholarship” program contradicted by ALEC’s own bylaws, by ALEC’s filings with the IRS, and by other documents. CMD documented these contradictory claims in another letter filed in April.
Senator Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), who is a member of ALEC’s Telecommunications and IT Task Force, sought to distance himself from the program, declaring that he had never received an ALEC “scholarship” and asking that he be dropped from the complaint. CMD applauded Senator Wanggaard’s acknowledgement through his actions that receiving corporate-funded flights and hotel rooms could compromise a legislator’s official judgment.
The Wisconsin GAB has acknowledged receipt of CMD’s complaint but is prohibited by law from commenting on the status of an investigation.
By: Brendan Fischer, Center For Media and Democracy, May 30, 2012
Milwaukee County prosecutors opened the secret John Doe criminal investigation more than two years ago after being stonewalled by Gov. Scott Walker‘s office when he was county executive, according to a newly released record.
The document appears to cast doubt on some of Walker’s claims about his role in launching and cooperating with the investigation.
On May 5, 2010, Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf filed a petition with court officials asking if his office could initiate a secret investigation into what happened with $11,000 in donations intended for Operation Freedom, an annual event honoring veterans.
By making it a secret John Doe investigation, Landgraf wrote that prosecutors might get better cooperation from Walker’s office, which had been “unwilling or unable” to turn over records and information needed in the investigation. He said he would need to subpoena county records and officials.
“It may be the County Executive’s Office is reluctant to provide information to investigators due to a fear of political embarrassment,” Landgraf wrote, noting that Walker was then running for governor.
But Ciara Matthews, spokeswoman for the governor’s recall campaign, said the filing was inaccurate.
In 2009, Matthews said, Walker had his former chief of staff, Tom Nardelli, contact the DA’s office over concerns about what a local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart had done with donations it received from the county for Operation Freedom.
“Multiple follow-ups were made by the chief of staff to the district attorney’s office to offer assistance in that investigation, and any statement to the contrary is not correct,” Matthews said.
The document was included in a court filing this week by the lawyer for Timothy Russell, a former top-level Walker aide who has been charged with embezzling more than $25,000 intended for Operation Freedom and two political candidates. His attorney, Dennis Krueger, wants a judge to dismiss the charges against his client because they involved matters that reached far beyond the original scope of the John Doe probe.
The investigation has led to criminal charges against three former Walker aides, an appointee and a major campaign contributor.
On Thursday, Walker’s former county spokeswoman, Fran McLaughlin, was granted immunity as part of the investigation. She is the 13th individual to receive immunity in the case.
Walker’s current spokesman, Cullen Werwie, also has been given immunity to testify behind closed doors.
Records show McLaughlin was given immunity after she invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions to avoid self-incrimination. Her attorney, Michael A.I. Whitcomb, refused further comment.
“I can’t say anything,” Whitcomb said.
Landgraf’s 2010 petition provides new information about the origins of the two-year probe, much of which is veiled in secrecy.
Walker has repeatedly brushed aside questions about the John Doe by claiming credit for launching it.
“Another interesting thing for people tuning in tonight is to know,” Walker said during last week’s recall debate, “this investigation started because my office asked for it nearly two years ago.”
Prosecutors have previously acknowledged that investigators met with Nardelli and another Walker aide in 2009 over Operation Freedom. Nardelli told the DA’s office that Purple Heart’s treasurer had refused to provide any records or accounting of the event’s finances.
But Landgraf’s filing is the first public suggestion Walker’s office later reversed course and quit cooperating.
“As part of the pre-Doe investigation, Investigator Jeffrey Doss sought to obtain documentation that would form the basis of tracing the funds from Milwaukee County to the Order,” Landgraf wrote in his May 2010 petition. “The Office of the County Executive has been unwilling or unable to provide such documentation. It is unclear at this juncture why the Office of the County Executive has not produced (or has not caused another Department to produce) these records.”
Landgraf noted in the petition that the media also would be interested in the investigation if they knew about it, adding that Walker was then running for governor. In fact, the Journal Sentinel wrote about the missing money a month later.
He said publicity about the probe could be “particularly unfair” to Walker.
“It is therefore my opinion that the formality and the secrecy of a John Doe proceeding will increase the likelihood of complete and frank statements by persons who may – in an informal, non-secret setting – feel uneasy about providing a candid, voluntary statement,” Landgraf wrote.
Earlier this year, prosecutors charged Kevin Kavanaugh, a former Walker appointee to the Milwaukee County Veterans Service Board, with five felony counts alleging he embezzled $42,232 from his Purple Heart chapter, for which he was treasurer. The money was supposed to help underwrite the costs of Operation Freedom.
Kavanaugh has pleaded not guilty.
Other records in Russell’s filing this week show that former Appeals Court Judge Neal Nettesheim, who is overseeing the John Doe investigation, agreed to expand the scope of the investigation at least seven times between May 11 and Nov. 30, 2010. In fact, prosecutors first expanded the investigation just three days after the case was opened, presumably in response to a No Quarter piece about a Walker staffer posting favorable comments about her boss on blogs and websites while she was on the job.
“To expand the scope of a John Doe proceeding to include investigating illegal campaign activity and a subsequent theft allegation unrelated to the time, circumstances and witnesses to the original 2006 theft clearly exceeds the scope and intent of the John Doe statute,” wrote Krueger, Russell’s attorney, in his motion asking Milwaukee County Circuit Judge David Hansher to throw out his client’s charges.
Krueger also said in his filing that prosecutors have informed him that Russell remains a target of the investigation, despite having been already charged earlier this year.
By continuing to investigate his client in the John Doe after charging him, Krueger said, prosecutors increase their ability to “leverage the defendant into accepting a plea or (face) the prospect of defending against additional charges.”
Landgraf declined to comment on the filing, saying he had not yet read it.
By: David Bice, No Quarter-Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 31, 2012