Why is an Arizona-based organization called Americans For Responsible Leadership pouring a walloping $11 million into the fight over two California ballot initiatives?
It’s one of those supposed social welfare groups with a bland name that tries to get around the rules to deliver huge anonymous contributions to their pet political causes.
According to Common Cause, it’s the largest secret campaign contribution in the state’s history.
Welcome to the toxic brew of big money and anonymity poisoning our democracy.
This was not how it was supposed to work when the U.S. Supreme Court unleashed the flood of big money with its landmark 2010 Citizens United ruling, in which the justices allowed corporations to make unlimited donations to political action committees not tied to a particular candidate.
The justices said big money was just another form of free speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
But in the ruling, the justices took a strong stance for public disclosure as the key to making Citizens United work.
Writing for the court in the 5-4 decision, Justice Kennedy said:
“With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation's interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.”
That’s not what’s happened, as big money donors have sought the anonymity offered by the “social welfare orgamizations” to conceal their intent.
According to its web site, Americans For Responsible Leadership “seeks to promote the general welfare by educating the public on concepts that advance government accountability, transparency, ethics, and related public policy issues.”
There’s no mention of motherhood and apple pie but, even so, who could argue with that mission statement, especially transparency?
Obviously they’re up to something other than those innocuous platitudes.
The Americans For Responsible Leadership, whose officers are Arizona Republicans, got its start supporting Tea Party candidates for local office and then moved on to statewide issues.
Now the ARL is jumping into California politics in a major way to oppose Proposition 30, Gov. Brown’s bid to raise taxes, and to support Proposition 32. While its supporters contend that Prop 32 is a campaign finance reform measure, opponents warn that it would bar unions from using dues collected from members to spend on politics. Prop 32 would allow corporations to continue to spend freely.
ARL’s $11 million has been funneled through the Small Business Action Committee, a California group that has focused on the two propositions.
ARL, a non-profit organization, doesn’t say where it got the money. And non-profits are generally allowed to protect the identity of their donors. But different rules apply when non-profits get involved in political campaigns:
California law requires that if its donors know their funds are going toward a ballot proposition, their identities have to be disclosed.
It’s not the first time that out- of-state, anonymous money has put its weight behind Proposition 32. Iowa-based American Future Fund, another non-profit “social welfare group” closely linked to the Republican Party and Mitt Romney, has already spent $4 million to boost Proposition 32. That organization has also been linked to the notorious Koch Brothers, the billionaire energy magnates known for backing up their opposition to labor unions, environmental regulation and President Obama with massive amounts of cash.
California Common Cause has filed a complaint over Americans For Responsible Leadership’s foray into California politics.
Common Cause’s Derek Cressmen told Frying Pan News’ Bill Raden that the group also has links to Karl Rove, another prime mover of right-wing anonymous political money: ARL employs the same Virginia law firm as the Koch Brothers and Rove super-PACS.
Responding to the Common Cause complaint, the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission has demanded detailed disclosure of the source of the $11 million.
On Frying Pan News, Raden suggests that the ARL’s motive for its California contribution may not have been entirely altruistic – in exchange for funneling the anonymous contribution into California, the Koch Brothers allegedly gave $350,000 for ARL to spend on politicking in its own state.
We can only hope that our state FPPC will give the Americans For Responsible Leadership a little taste of the transparency it says it favors. Tackling the Citizens United ruling will take longer. For a start, take a look at the constitutional amendment we’ve proposed and get some background here.