“DARK money” is the appropriately creepy term for a new generation of political campaign spending that evades the light of transparency. It’s on the rise here in Washington, with complaints filed to the Public Disclosure Commissions (PDC) in each of the last three elections, by both Republicans and Democrats.
The state Senate, controlled by a Republican-led Majority Coalition, failed to act on a good, simple fix last year. But in the election that just wrapped up, the coalition’s Democratic member was hit with a duplicitous dark-money blitz, riling up Republicans. That incident should motivate the state Senate, and House, to turn the light on dark money come January.
Here’s how disclosure should work: All groups that raise or spend money for candidates or ballot measures should register with the state PDC. They should publicly disclose their donors and abide by state campaign-finance laws.
But dark money evades those rules, flowing to groups organized for tax purposes as “social welfare” entities. That makes them exempt from disclosure because they claim they’re not primarily political.
In this election, a Washington, D.C.,-based group called American Values First spent $41,300 to proclaim state Sen. Tim Sheldon — a conservative Potlatch Democrat who cooperates with Senate Republicans — is a champion of Obamacare, of “undocumented immigrants” and of Planned Parenthood funding.
American Values First claims it is primarily a “social welfare” group, exempt from disclosure. Who really paid for these mailers? No idea.
But it’s easy to link American Values First with Democrats, who wanted to beat Sheldon (he won anyway). The president of American Values First, Michael Sargeant, is also president of the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
That link gives this case of dark money a twist: The committee also gave $10,000 to a group that accused Sheldon of “chipping away” at reproductive rights and “a woman’s ability to make her own, personal medical decisions.”
These were two mail pieces — hitting Sheldon from the left and from the right — paid for by the same group that says it doesn’t have to disclose donors because its not really a political group.
Come on. Wonder why voters are cynical about politics?
The PDC is investigating Republicans’ complaints about American Values First. But no matter the outcome, the damage is done. Voters didn’t have a chance to know who was funding the Sheldon ads before they voted.
The Legislature, when it returns in January, should dust off the dark money disclosure bill filed by state Sen. Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat. The bill, which had Republican co-sponsors, requires any group — a social welfare nonprofit or not, in-state or not — that buys a nominal amount of political ads to disclose donors and comply with state laws.
Washington has one of the nation’s brightest sunshine laws for campaign-finance disclosure, thanks to a 1972 voter-approved initiative. This election shows it needs an update. Bring the dark money into the light.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).