A campaign ad airing statewide portrays crooked politicians and shady lobbyists meeting in garages and stairwells, seemingly at the California Capitol.
"Deals cut in shadows and backrooms. With contributions, big corporations and government unions control politicians. It's killing California," the narrator says darkly.
If you didn't know better, you'd think good government types were promoting political reform. But this being California initiative politics, the funders are not wearing white hats.
The money is real, $4.08 million so far, but the contributors are anonymous, the sort who increasingly dominate American politics. The entities through which they funnel their money are little more than shells, with one giving money to another that gives money to another, hiding the ultimate source even more.
The ad touts Proposition 32, the initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot aimed at restricting unions from raising money for political campaigns. But the point isn't to win passage of Proposition 32, although its funders would be pleased with that outcome.
Most importantly, the $4.08 million ad purchase will force unions to dig deeper to defeat the initiative. Labor's main goal in this election is to kill the ballot measure and has raised more than $32 million toward that end.
In California, the Fair Political Practices Commission is preparing regulations that would require greater disclosure by bloggers who receive payments from candidates and campaigns. But because of court rulings and state and federal laws, the FPPC has been unable to require full disclosure of the people behind nonprofit corporations that spend millions to sway voters for and against initiatives.
An entity called California Future Fund for Free Markets is the shell that is airing the commercial supporting Proposition 32. That's known because the entity filed papers with the California secretary of state, with a phone number. That number is to a law firm in Virginia headed by attorney Jill Holtzman Vogel.
Vogel didn't call back, but she knows something about deals cut in shadows. She was part of the legal team that represented the GOP during the 2000 presidential recount in Florida, and in 2004 became chief counsel to the Republican National Committee.
Vogel also is a state senator in Virginia, and takes plenty of big contributions, including $95,000 from a New York hedge fund manager, $320,000 from a Virginia software entrepreneur and $386,000 from her father, who is in the oil and gas retail business in the South.
In its filing, California Future Fund reported that it received the $4.08 million from American Future Fund. This so-called social welfare corporation is based in Des Moines, Iowa, and its president is a grandmother named Sandy Greiner.
Greiner, who didn't call me back, happens to be one of the most conservative members of the Iowa state Senate. She also takes her share of fat donations, especially from farm lobby groups, farm corporations and ethanol interests.
On its website, American Future Fund claims to advocate "conservative, free market ideals." But evidently, that free market view doesn't extend to farm subsidies. Greiner and her husband farm corn and soybeans, and received $61,594 in federal farm subsidies between 1995 and 2011, according to the group Environmental Working Group, which tracks the payments.
American Future Fund became a player in campaigns nationally in 2010 after receiving almost $13 million from another social welfare group called Center to Protect Patient Rights, which is based in Phoenix.
Where the Center to Protect Patient Rights gets its money is not known. But several publications say its money comes from the Kansas oil billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, who are spending tens of millions to defeat President Barack Obama.
Sean Noble, the center's president, clearly wasn't in a mood to chat when I called him Tuesday and asked how much the center was giving to American Future Fund this year.
"We don't talk about current activities," said Noble, who previously worked as a chief of staff to a Republican congressman from Phoenix and as a lobbyist opposing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
"Our goal is to promote freedom, and we support groups that do the same. It's very straightforward. There is nothing to expand upon," Noble said, ending our little talk.
So here we are: A group represented by a Republican lawyer in Virginia takes $4 million from a "free market" group headed by a Republican senator in Iowa, which took money from a "free market" group in Phoenix.
They promote a California initiative, knowing that every dollar unions spend to beat it is one less dollar that unions will spend to help President Obama win re-election, Democrats take back control of Congress or expand their numbers in the California Legislature.
Talk about deals cut in the shadows.