1. Opinion

Editorial: Shed light on dark money in politics

It's called dark money for a reason. Millions of dollars are flowing into nonprofit groups aligned with particular presidential candidates to influence voters with often misleading ads, and voters will never know who wrote the checks. It's bad enough that the courts have eviscerated campaign finance rules, but at the very least the names of these political contributors should be publicly reported so voters can judge for themselves the motives of the messengers behind the ads.

Here's just one example. A television ad features Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican presidential candidate and an opponent of the nuclear arms agreement with Iran negotiated by President Barack Obama and five other countries. It urges voters to tell their senators to join Rubio and reject the deal. Yet voters have no idea who is paying for these ads. As the Tampa Bay Times' Alex Leary reported, the ad is being aired by a nonprofit called Conservative Solutions Project started by a South Carolina operative with close ties to Rubio. The nonprofit has raised far more than Rubio's campaign, but voters don't know where it gets its money. That sort of secrecy invites at least the perception of corruption that campaign finance laws were created to prevent, and it erodes public confidence in the integrity of elections.

Unfortunately, it's also perfectly legal. Thanks to a series of court decisions that began with the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United opinion in 2010, money is now considered speech, and corporations and unions are essentially considered the same as individuals. Those wrongheaded decisions have given rise to the super political action committees, which can raise unlimited contributions but at least have to disclose their contributors, and the "social welfare" nonprofits, which do not have to disclose where their money comes from. Previous efforts in Congress to force these nonprofits to disclose their political donors have failed, but the record amounts of dark money that will be spent during the 2016 election cycle should prompt the next president and a new Congress to require more openness.

Nonprofits such as the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association understandably do not want to publicly disclose all of their members and contributors. But voters understand the Sierra Club advocates for the environment and the NRA promotes the rights of gun owners. The court rulings opened the door for the creation of nonprofits that have little or no reason to exist except to promote political candidates with anonymous contributors. They are exploiting a loophole in Internal Revenue Service guidelines to get away with it, and the IRS botched its initial attempt to clamp down on them by focusing on tea party groups and triggering a political firestorm.

Rubio is among several Republican presidential candidates benefiting from a political nonprofit operating under a facade of independence, and they often operate in tandem with a super PAC. For example, former Gov. Jeb Bush raised money for the Right to Rise PAC before he became a candidate, and the committee has raised more than $100 million. Its donors are disclosed. But there also is the nonprofit Right to Rise Policy Solutions founded by a former member of Bush's administration who is now Bush's campaign treasurer. And the nonprofit, which has employed staff that moved to the Bush campaign, is now operated by a Tallahassee consultant closely tied to Bush. These are creations for the presidential campaign that would not exist if not for the misguided court decisions.

While Republicans have been more successful raising dark money through these nonprofits, disclosure should not be a partisan issue. Democrats including President Barack Obama have benefited from them as well. Hillary Clinton, who is benefiting from the support of a super PAC, has announced a series of proposed campaign finance reforms that include public matching funds for small donations to campaigns and forcing more disclosure of political contributions. The call for reform also has been taken up by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is challenging Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican presidential candidate.

It's too late to do anything about the amount of money and the secrecy surrounding contributions to political nonprofits for the 2016 election cycle. But this election should be the last one where voters have no clue who is spending how much to influence them with television ads that often play fast and loose with the truth.