Follow the Money—Where?

During the past few hours in California, the new model of Republican/Big Money campaign finance has become clear. It’s the Russian Doll model—every time you think you’re about to identify the source of a major contribution, you open it up and lo! There’s another doll that you have to open up and lo! There’s another …

To move from the metaphoric to the actual, the contribution in question here was an $11 million check that came in several weeks ago to a Sacramento-based right-wing business organization called the Small Business Action Committee that is running a campaign against Governor Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30, which would raise taxes chiefly on wealthy Californians in order to keep school and public-university budgets from falling through the floor, and the campaign for Proposition 32, which would make it much harder for unions to access their members’ dues for their political activities. The Sacramento organization, required by California law to reveal the source of the donation, said it came from an Arizona-based nonprofit (technically, a 501(c)4 devoted to public education, which means, in this case, political advertising) named Americans for Responsible Leadership, which veteran Arizona politicos said they’d not heard of. 

At that point, California Common Cause lodged a complaint with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), requesting the commission compel the Arizona group to disclose the sources of the contribution, as required by California law. When the Arizona group declined to do so, the FPPC took it to court, and within several days, a superior court judge, then an appellate court judge, and finally, a unified state Supreme Court (filled preponderantly by justices appointed by Republican governors) ordered the Arizona group to reveal the donor’s identity. The Supreme Court ruling came yesterday, and attorneys for the Arizona group (who were prominent Washington-based GOP attorneys) initially indicated they’d appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court rather than identify the source of the donation before Election Day. 

This morning, though, they reversed field and said the group would release the name of the donor.  Which it did—it was another 501(c)4, the Center to Protect Patient Rights, another group with an Arizona mailing address that had been a major funder of attack ads against Democratic congressional candidates in 2010 and that is run by Sean Noble, described today by the San Jose Mercury as “an operative of the Koch Brothers” (that’s right-wing gazillionaires Charles and David Koch, of course). But the Center to Protect Patient Rights admitted, it wasn’t the source of the money. The $11 million had come from a 501(c)6, the Virginia-based Americans for Job Security, a group that the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics describes as funded chiefly by businesses and “established to directly counter labor’s influence.” 

But who wrote the checks to Americans for Job Security? The Kochs? Today, their spokespersons denied that the brothers were the source. Known union-detester Sheldon Adelson?  Some corporations that prefer to remain anonymous? Both FPPC Chair Ann Ravel and California Attorney General vowed to pursue the case further. “They admitted to money laundering,” Ravel said. (Whether the “they” refers to the Small Business Action Committee, Americans for Responsible Leadership, the Center to Protect Patient Rights, or Americans for Job Security isn’t clear, but this confusion merely highlights the breadth of the concealment.) The FPPC, Ravel added, “in no way agreed [the morning’s revelation] would preclude further action.”

The sudden about-face on the part of the attorneys may be explained by the fact that these are unrevealing revelations—that we have merely followed the money from one organization with an anodyne name to three others with anodyne names without getting any closer to the source of the money, though we do know that a group within the Koch Brothers’ empire is involved. Or it may be explained by the fact that had the attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, their appeal would have gone to the justice with jurisdiction over California—Anthony Kennedy, who authored the majority opinion in Citizens United but who also noted that it would be well if donations were disclosed. With all the Republican justices on the California Supreme Court demanding disclosure, there as at least the possibility that Kennedy would side with them, undermining some of the legal basis for preserving the anonymity of donors to 501(c)4s. That may have been a risk the attorneys weren’t willing to take. 

And why the flood of outside money on these two ballot measures? To be sure, we can never dismiss the class solidarity of the rich, whose taxes, if they live in California, would go up if Proposition 30 passes. But by spending all this money on the two ballot measures, these as-yet-anonymous donors ensured that unions would continue to have to pour tens of millions of dollars into their campaigns for 30 and against 32. All the polls show that 32 is losing big—it’s the third time in the past 15 years that such a measure has been placed on the ballot, losing each time (if it indeed loses on Tuesday, as all polls predict).  But by continuing to pour big money into the campaign for the measure, its backers have compelled the unions to match those contributions, rendering them unable to redirect their resources to other state or national campaigns. It’s increasingly apparent that Republican and business interests are waging electoral battles against labor to drain unions’ treasuries whatever the outcomes may be. Even though they will not prevail today on Proposition 32, and may lose on Proposition 30 as well, they will have tied down more than $50 million in union political money on these two fights, money that didn’t go into close California congressional races (there are at least half-a-dozen this year) or into presidential battleground states. In the age of unchecked money in politics, unions lose even when they win. And as for figuring out where all that money came from, that depends on how the FPPC fares in the courts. More Russian dolls await. 

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