State leaders call for action against dark money

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JEFFERSON CITY - "Dark money" is a term that has gained popularity in recent years. In Missouri, talk of it simmered throughout all of 2018.

Before he resigned from office, whispers of dark money embroiled former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, in addition to other scandals.

In Missouri's 2018 U.S. Senate Race, both incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican challenger Josh Hawley have accused their opponent of profiting from hidden donors.

KOMU 8 News spoke to state leaders who said dark money is one of the largest ethics issues facing the state.

Term-limited Republican State Sen. Rob Schaaf urged Missourians to understand the dangers involved.

"You should be opposed to dark money because your freedom depends on it," he said.

What is Dark Money?

According to the independent watchdog group OpenSecrets,  the term "dark money" refers to political spending intended to influence politics, in which the donor is unknown. Most commonly, dark money refers to money spent by a political nonprofit or a super PAC.

Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway gave her definition to KOMU 8 News. 

"Dark money is political contributions that are made to influence policy or our politics, given in the shadows," she said. "Donors are not disclosed, and the source of the money is not disclosed."

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, dark money groups spent about $178.4 million across the nation in 2016. In the 2012 election season, the first general election after the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission reshaped the precedent of campaign finance law, the amount of dark money was around $312.5 million.

Under Missouri law, dark money is legal. There are some limitations on campaign contributions. However, state leaders like Galloway and Schaaf said it's not enough.

In Missouri, there are stipulations limiting what and how individuals and corporations can contribute to a political cause. However, Galloway said there are no limits on 501(c)(4) political nonprofit groups. This makes for an effective loophole.

"They don't have to disclose their donors, they don't have to disclose the expenditures that they make."

Big-ticket political donors are able to funnel their own money into these political nonprofit groups. The nonprofit then uses that money to support a candidate. Because the money is technically coming from a 501(c)(4), there are no limitations on the contributions, and the original donor does not need to be disclosed.

Gallaway said, during Greitens' tenure, such nonprofits became much more common in Missouri.

Schaaf said the state's current campaign finance laws are inconsistent and illogical. He said they are too easy to bypass, and do little to curb dark money's influence.

"The more that we try to lock down the contribution limit, the more ways people try to get around those contribution limits by hiding in the dark," Schaaf said.

Galloway said the practice of dark money is becoming more of a "rule" than an "exception" in Missouri.

"This is one of the major ethics issues we have in Missouri," she said.

Why is it a concern?

Many critics of dark money say the practice is dangerous because the voters have no way of knowing who is backing whom, or what. It becomes much harder to see who is gaining from the advancement of certain candidates or pieces of legislation.

"When policy and influence are being bought and sold in the shadows, people don't know how decisions are made on their behalf," Galloway said.

Schaaf indicated similar concerns.

"I think the people want to know that their elected officials are acting in their interests, and not in the interests of some special interest with a lot of money," he said.

Schaaf said the practice of dark money allows the rich to buy political influence. He said new campaign finance regulations are needed to protect the freedoms of Missourians.

"The idea there is that rich people won't have more of a say over their legislative officials, and the officials won't do things for the benefit of those rich people," he said.

Schaaf said, if Missourians could see who is donating to various candidates, and how much, it would help them make more informative decisions.

"People need to know who is trying to influence their legislation," he said.

What can be done?

Though dark money's influence is powerful, state leaders on both sides of the aisle said the first step to making a change is within voters' grasp.

Galloway said she has spoken to Gov. Mike Parson about taking measures to increase transparency on matters relating to government contracts. She said it is important to understand who is benefiting from large state contracts, and how much corporations are contributing to make it happen.

"This is a simple way to add transparency around how taxpayer dollars are being spent," she said.

Galloway said the Missouri Ethics Commission has created certain rules and limitations relating to contributions from political nonprofit groups. Though any political campaign that violates those rules can face a fine, that violation would not be a criminal offense.

Galloway said Missouri lawmakers need to adopt the Missouri Ethics Commission's rules and write them into state law. This, she said, will limit the influence of dark money by giving the existing rules more "teeth."

Schaaf, however, said Missourians' best hope for curbing dark money is to take action themselves. He said he has little faith that lawmakers will be the ones to make a difference.

"The powers that be don't want to lock down dark money," he said. "They benefit from it. They're not gonna try to change it."

Schaaf said he introduced two bills this year to combat dark money. Those bills were referred to committee, but never received a hearing. Consequently, the bills never advanced.

Schaaf said combating dark money should be a bipartisan issue, but, because the party in power is usually benefiting the most from dark money, little is ever done in the legislature. 

"If somebody gives you a whole bunch of money and gets you in office, you're not liable to try and bite the hand that feeds you," he said.

Schaaf said Missourians' best option to immediately pursue ethics reform is to vote to approve Amendment One.

That measure, also known as "Clean Missouri," is on the Nov. 6 ballot. The amendment would make several changes to the state constitution, like requiring a state demographer to draw state legislative maps and lowering the limit on campaign contributions.

Supporters say the amendment would bring much-needed ethics reform to Jefferson City. Critics contend the amendment aims to accomplish too much and promotes unneeded government regulation.

"In my opinion, Clean Missouri is a good first step," Schaaf said. "But it needs to be the first step, after that they need to go after the dark money specifically."

Schaaf said, beyond passing Amendment One, Missourians need to be deliberate in backing candidates who promise to take on dark money and protect constitutional freedoms.

"We have to remember that a lot of people died for those freedoms, and the legislature can give them away in just a few seconds."

Schaaf said, if no action is taken, the ethical climate in Jefferson City will remain stagnant.

"We'll just continue to have a legislature that works for the special interests and not for the people."