Peering into the Dark

Dark Money

The title of the latest report issued by the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network is appropriately ominous: “Descending into Dark Money.”

For those of you who think the report might be a rant against the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision, we offer these cautionary notes: Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) isn’t the kind of guy who usually engages in rants; moreover, the problem of so-called “dark money” is an issue that existed long before Citizens United, which the watchdog group describes as a decision that allows that “corporations, unions and issue advocacy organizations may now spend unlimited amounts of money from their treasuries on independent political expenditures in support of or opposition to a candidate.”

Here’s what Robinson has to say in the foreword to the report MCFN released last week:

“Since the Supreme Court of the United States published its opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, there has been increased public attention on political spending that cannot be traced to its sources. The reader is advised to bear in mind that unaccountable spending in Michigan state campaigns is proportionally much greater than it is in federal campaigns, and such spending in Michigan state campaigns predates Citizens United by a decade. Since 2000, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network has compiled records of more than $88 million in candidate-focused television ads that were not reported to the Michigan Bureau of Elections. Such unreported spending has become a major feature of every hotly contested Michigan state election.”

Robinson is referring to so-called “issue ads,” which, as long as they don’t explicitly urge a vote for or against a specific candidate, aren’t subject to campaign reporting laws.

In other words, special interest groups and the very wealthy can attack or support a candidate without revealing where the money originates — as long as they avoid some specific language.

That $88 million, by the way, is a conservative number, Robinson says, because it only covers TV advertising, which can be tracked. Left out are radio ads and direct mail advertising.

This issue-ad fig leaf is particularly ludicrous when it comes to judicial races, Robinson tells News Hits. That’s because judges, unlike other elected officials, are supposed to remain off-limits when it comes to lobbying. They are supposed to base their decisions on interpretations of the law, absent pressure from any outside influence.

As a result, Robinson explains, candidates are being reduced to spectators of their own campaigns as the political parties and special interests exert more and more influence.

In 2012, for example, the share of campaign spending by state Supreme Court candidates was a record low 17.9 percent, according to the MCFN report. Meanwhile, “the unreported spending for television advertisements, 73.5 percent, was a record high … MCFN has collected 13 different direct mail pieces about the candidates that were paid for by the Michigan Republican Party. Only two of the 13 were paid for with regulated (reported) funds.”

By Robinson’s calculations, just 43 percent of all the money spent on state Supreme Court races since 2000 has been reported.

The report articulates unambiguously why this is a problem:

“Undisclosed spending in Supreme Court campaigns thwarts the voter’s right to know who is supporting the candidates, as it does in any campaign where undisclosed spending occurs. However, there is additional toxicity to unreported spending in a judicial campaign. It compromises trust and confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary.

“If a person or interest group spends a very large amount to help elect a judge, and the judge who benefited from that support hears a case involving his or her supporter, the supporter’s opponent in litigation is justified in asking the judge to stand aside from the case.

“But if the support was undisclosed and can’t be found in the public record, the party whose right to an impartial court hearing has been compromised and can’t know when such a recusal motion is warranted. The probability of bias is there, but knowledge of it is not.”

The problem in Michigan and elsewhere is that the electoral process and the sources of money that fuel it is about as transparent as a lead shield.

What we have, Robinson says, is a huge blind spot in the public’s consciousness of who is spending money in Michigan politics, and, consequently, “… who is driving the policy agenda in Michigan.”


News Hits is written by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]