Opinion Columns & Blogs

Ben Boychuk: How to Kill the ‘Dark Money’ Bogeyman

Transparency is better than obscurity. The whole truth is often preferable to half-truths and deception. Knowing who is funding politics and why is better than not knowing. An informed electorate is obviously superior to an uninformed one.

But as far as fostering transparency, truth, knowledge and an informed democratic citizenry are concerned, our existing campaign-finance laws are an unmitigated disaster.

Our legislators’ answer to this failure? New laws. More regulation. More compliance. In short, more of the same – which serves only to reinforce the political ruling class while raising ever-higher barriers to newcomers.

The latest campaign-finance bogeyman is the scourge of “dark money” – a catchphrase of fairly recent vintage to describe the hundreds of millions of dollars in undisclosed or anonymous campaign donations sloshing around every election, supposedly corrupting everything it touches.

Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris recently heralded a triumphant blow against the Forces of Darkness with news of a $1 million settlement by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission against a pair of Arizona-based right-leaning nonprofits.

The FPPC slapped $500,000 fines on the Center to Protect Patient Rights and Americans for Responsible Leadership. Both groups – which have ties to the other great political bogeymen of our time, billionaire libertarians Charles and David Koch – had contributed a combined $15 million in anonymous funds to campaigns opposing Proposition 30, Brown’s income and sales tax increase, and supporting Proposition 32, which would have barred corporations and unions from contributing to state candidates.

Oh, but that’s not all. Along with the fines, the FPPC wants both groups to “pay back” the $15 million they spent in the 2012 campaign. Not to their original donors, mind you, but rather to the state general fund, which the Democrats will happily spend cooking up new ways to punish their political foes.

Announcing the settlement, FPPC chairwoman Ann Ravel – who is headed for the Federal Election Commission this month – declared: “This is a nationwide issue. These groups exploit loopholes in the law to undermine the clear purpose of the law – to give essential information to the public.”

A “loophole” is another word for perfectly legal activity that regulators would love to see banned. Fact is, the state’s Political Reform Act doesn’t require nonprofits to disclose donors.

As I say, transparency is better than its opposite, and California law already has extensive – and sometimes confusing – disclosure requirements for individual donors. But it’s understandable why some donors would want to use protections within the law to remain anonymous. Taking on the governor of California and his pet initiatives takes some guts, especially if you are trying to make a living in a state with one of the most hostile business climates in the country. Or challenge the liberal orthodoxy on gay marriage, for example, and you may find yourself the target of boycotts, vandalism and death threats, as many donors to the Proposition 8 campaign discovered in 2008 and 2009.

Now reformers – including The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board – are putting some energy into reviving a trio of bills that stalled at the end of the legislative session that would allow for more political abuse under the guise of greater transparency and accountability.

Assembly Bill 800 by San Francisco Democrat Richard Gordon would empower the FPPC to audit a campaign before an election. Does anyone believe for a moment that politicians wouldn’t use the commission’s new power as a cudgel against would-be challengers and fledgling initiative campaigns?

Gordon is also sponsoring Assembly Bill 914, which would “expand disclosure requirements for nonprofit corporations engaged in political activity.” (Santa Ana Democrat Lou Correa is carrying a similar bill in the state Senate.) More disclosure is better than less disclosure, right? Trouble is, nonprofits are already subject to extensive state and federal accounting and compliance requirements. Adding costly new burdens would only discourage legitimate speech.

Politics will always be awash with cash. Special interests will always find a way to exert influence. But one person’s “special interest” is another’s good cause. True, engaging in public affairs sometimes means putting one’s good name on the line. But people shouldn’t be subject to wanton abuse simply for donating money to politics.

How about this: In exchange for absolute and immediate transparency, we erect near-ironclad protections against harassment. If you give to political campaigns, you must do so publicly. No more “dark money.” Fail to comply and you pay a draconian fine.

But an equal standard must apply to the opposition. “Naming and shaming” may be a legitimate First Amendment exercise – newspapers do it all the time – but we need to draw the line at violent threats, blackmail and official retaliation.

Too much to hope for, perhaps – especially in a one-party state – but our politics would be infinitely better for it.