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Lisa Graves is the executive director of True North Research and a former assistant assistant attorney general in the US Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy. This column was produced for Progressive magazine and distributed by the Tribune News Service.
On April 26, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that could overturn decades of transparency laws even if dark money spending continues to rise due to special interests.
The court’s new majority is being asked by billionaire Charles Koch’s nonprofits to broaden the notion that “money is language” by ruling that the first amendment prohibits disclosure laws that might discourage large donors from using nonprofits anymore To give money.
On the surface, the case known as the Americans for Prosperity Foundation v Bonta is about whether a state can require a nonprofit group to publish a list of their donors who are donating $ 5,000 or more. This data is not public, but a bug in California’s electronic filing system accidentally made it briefly searchable by other filing devices, which Koch’s Americans for Prosperity Foundation discovered.
The rule that requires secret disclosure has been followed on millions of nonprofit filings since 1970. There is no evidence that it has been abused or abused by regulators or anyone else, and the California bug has been fixed.
But that wasn’t good enough for Kochs Americans for Prosperity, who had apparently refused to share that data with California anyway, despite the Internal Revenue Service’s request to do so on Appendix B of their annual tax returns. The IRS has allowed nonprofits to edit the names but requires public disclosure of the largest amounts.
This rule is the only reason we know, for example, that after Justice Antonin Scalia passed away in February 2016, a group called the Wellspring Committee received almost all of its funding of more than $ 28 million from a single donor. The donor’s identity is still unknown.
Between 2016 and 17, Wellspring donated a total of $ 38 million to a group called the Judicial Crisis Network, which spent millions pressuring the Senate to block President Barack Obama’s candidate for the US Supreme Court, Merrick Garland and then push for confirmation of President Donald Trump’s candidate for that seat, Neil Gorsuch. After Wellspring spent an additional million to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, he closed.
The Supreme Court case continues Koch’s attack on minimal transparency and scrutiny of nonprofits that became increasingly embroiled in elections following the controversial Citizens United ruling in 2010.
Since then, Koch has helped raise and spend more than a billion dollars to influence the elections, but the donors are being kept hidden. This is why spending on groups like Americans for Prosperity is so robust. Unlike funds that are donated directly to a candidate or political party and must be disclosed, donations to groups like Americans for Prosperity are classified.
In fact, we don’t even know how much Koch himself or Koch Industries spent since Senator Mitch McConnell blocked the disclosure bills.
Americans for Prosperity has spent millions helping GOP candidates win the election and validating Trump-appointed judges. That includes helping Amy Coney Barrett get re-elected shortly before the 2020 election, which is why Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island and others asked that she withdraw from hearing the case. Barrett refused.
But now Judges Barrett, Kavanaugh, and Gorsuch are ready to support the agenda of the dark money groups that took them to the Supreme Court. They could even deal a fatal blow to disclosure laws like HR 1, the For the People Act, which would shed light on billionaires like Koch, who secretly spent countless millions to influence elections.
This is the wrong way. Our democracy urgently needs more sunshine, not more darkness.