SECRET MONEY FOR THE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES

ABSTRACT: The fastest growing and perhaps the most troublesome of the four main avenues for presidential campaign fundraising and spending are the “dark money” organizations. These are non-profit organizations that can accept unlimited amounts of money and keep their donors secret. They are social-welfare groups that are supposed to work exclusively to further the common good and general welfare. However, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has interpreted “exclusively” to mean “more than 50%,” which still means that political activity shouldn’t be their primary purpose. In addition, an IRS rule prohibits social-welfare organizations from benefiting a single individual.

Some of the politically active social-welfare organizations have pushed against these limitations. In the 2014 congressional elections, dark money expenditures grew tremendously. Because of the lack of oversight and enforcement by either the IRS or the Federal Election Commission (FEC), dark money organizations started ignoring operating rules and reporting requirements. In the 2016 presidential race, single-candidate dark money organizations have surfaced that seem to violate the IRS’s single individual rule. Dark money organizations have also been active at the state and local levels.

Allowing secret donors to pay for millions of dollars of campaign spending means that voters cannot make informed decisions and raises the specter of serious corruption. Without timely disclosure of donors, our democracy cannot have the informed electorate that is essential to its effective functioning.

FULL POST: The fastest growing and perhaps the most troublesome of the four main avenues for presidential campaign fundraising and spending are the “dark money” organizations. [1] These are non-profit organizations that can accept unlimited amounts of money from wealthy individuals, corporations, unions, and other organizations. However, unlike Political Action Committees (PACs) and Super PACs, they can keep their donors secret, hence their money is “dark money.” Like PACs and Super PACs, they are supposed to operate independently of candidates’ official campaign committees.

In exchange for their non-profit, tax-exempt status, these social-welfare groups are supposed to work exclusively to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community. However, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has interpreted “exclusively” to mean that “more than 50%” of an organization’s activities have to be for social-welfare purposes. [2] [3] Therefore, political activity shouldn’t be the primary purpose of these organizations, which are registered under sections 501(c)(4), (c)(5), and (c)(6) of the IRS Code. In addition, an IRS rule prohibits social-welfare organizations from benefiting a single individual – the so-called “private benefit” rule. However, the IRS has been lax in defining political activity and in enforcing the focus on a social-welfare purpose and the private benefit rule.

Some of the politically active social-welfare organizations have pushed back against these limitations. Given the lack of enforcement from the IRS, some of them are basically ignoring operating rules and reporting requirements. In addition, some of these organizations have laundered their contributions through other entities to complicate any attempts to identify actual donors.

In the 2014 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina, a social-welfare organization called Carolina Rising, spent 97% of the $4.9 million it raised helping Thom Tillis win the seat. It received $4.8 million from a single donor whom it did not, and did not have to, disclose. The organization had no employees and spent $4.7 million through a single advertising firm for TV and cable ads. Because some of these ads aired close to the election in a time window that requires reporting to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Carolina Rising reported $3.3 million in election spending to the FEC. The contracts it signed with the TV and cable companies airing its ads, which are filed with the Federal Communications Commission, identified the ads as pro-Tillis. However, it reported to the IRS that it had conducted no political activity. Carolina Rising would appear to have clearly violated the IRS rules on benefiting a single individual and on political activity having to be less than 50% of a social-welfare organization’s activity. Furthermore, it may well have knowingly lied to the IRS in stating it had not engaged in political activity. [4]

In the 2016 presidential race, single-candidate dark money organizations have surfaced. At least four Republican presidential candidates have dedicated dark money organizations, although they would appear to violate the IRS’s single individual rule. [5]

A dark money organization, the Conservative Solutions Project, is spending heavily on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio. So far, every Rubio TV ad in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, as well as mailings to voters in those states, has been paid for by this dark money, non-profit organization. After spending $3 million over the summer promoting Rubio, it was spending almost $1 million a week in late September and early October on pro-Rubio TV ads. [6] Supposedly, it is doing all of this totally independently of the Rubio campaign.

There are plenty of examples of politically active social-welfare nonprofits flouting rules and reporting. And dark money organizations have been active at the state and local levels as well as at the national level. For example, they have opposed California ballot initiatives and blocked the start-up of a new bus line in Nashville, Tennessee, that would have linked poorer, gentrifying neighborhoods with downtown and wealthier, upscale neighborhoods. [7]

Allowing secret donors to pay for millions of dollars of campaign spending means that voters cannot make informed decisions and raises the specter of serious corruption. Without timely disclosure of political donors, our democracy cannot have the informed electorate that is essential to its effective functioning.

My next post will discuss ways of addressing this lack of disclosure of major donors to election spending.

[1]       See my previous post, Big money for the presidential candidates, for information on the other 3 avenues for campaign fundraising and spending.

[2]       Kuns, K., 7/1/15, “The dark politics of dark money,” The Washington Spectator

[3]       Bykowicz, J., 10/8/15, “Rubio’s presidential bid boosted by secret-money commercials,” The Associated Press (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/5926406673b047a7a34f1177e01014da/anonymous-donors-send-millions-pro-rubio-group)

[4]       Maguire, R., 10/20/15, “Political nonprofit spent nearly 100 percent of funds to elect Tillis in ’14,” Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2015/10/political-nonprofit-spent-nearly-100-percent-of-funds-to-elect-tillis-in-14/)

[5]       Maguire, R., & Tucker, W., 9/21/15, “Five-fold upsurge: Super PACs, dark money groups spending far more than in ’12 cycle at the same point in campaign,” Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2015/09/five-fold-upsurge-super-pacs-dark-money-groups-spending-far-more-than-in-12-cycle-at-same-point-in-campaign/)

[6]       Bykowicz, J., 10/8/15, see above

[7]       Kranish, M., 10/11/15, “A city’s immovable roadblock,” The Boston Globe

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