Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group: Dark money in the twilight of 2011

Dark money has haunted the psyche of good government reformers. Recent changes in campaign law raise the prospect of unlimited donations, routed to political action committees through 501(c)4 “social welfare” organizations that don’t have to disclose contributors’ names. That could allow innocuously named groups to shelter powerful individuals and corporations and the influence they’re exercising to determine who wins a federal office.

So far, that scenario has been the dog that didn’t bark, but that doesn’t mean it has been defanged.

Sunlight looked at the super PAC filings in search of 501(c)4 dark money and found just one outright donation listed for 2011. More common were in-kind contributions in the form of staff and office space shared by 501(c)4s with sister organizations. Total receipts reported by super PACs from 501(c)4s amounted to $1.6 million, a number dwarfed by the overall spending figures. Still, it’s not insignificant — and it means super PACs have that much more money to spend on ads because their operating costs have been covered by other organizations.

“Super PACs are still a relatively new phenomena, they are still evolving. Under the current rules, there are a multitude of ways to make anonymous contributions,” says Mimi Marziani, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice. Other routes for dark money are emerging:

  • Some PACs have been getting donations from companies that only exist on paper or, as the New York Times reported, are very hard to find information about .
  • And, as Dave Vance of Campaign Legal Center points out, social welfare organizations “can spend tens of millions dollars of dollars on TV ads anyway, so they don’t need to give to another source.” One example of a 501(c)4 entering a political race without having to report donors: Citzens for a Working America Inc., reported spending $475,000 on ads supporting Mitt Romney in Iowa, but listed no donors to the FEC at the end of the year. That’s because 501(c)4s do not have to disclose the names of political donors names unless they explicitly earmarks his or her money for a particular political advertisement. The FEC last year was asked to change this regulation to force broader disclosure of donor names, but declined to do so.
  • A study this week by the Washington Post using television advertising records provided by Kantar Media-CMAG suggests that more than a third of political advertising aired in the presidential campaign so far this cycle as been underwritten by social welfare groups who will never have to disclose the sources of their funding.

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