Voters should be alarmed at the amount of money that is bankrolling television advertising for and against candidates and ballot measures. Thanks to decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts, it is easier than ever for deep-pocketed interests to attempt to anonymously swing an election, with no limits on spending and no way for citizens to know the source of the money.
The latest example is here in California, where the Fair Political Practices Commission has partially unmasked a mystery contribution by an Arizona-based nonprofit. The group, Americans for Responsible Leadership, contributed $11 million to campaign groups opposing Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative, Proposition 30, and supporting an initiative to restrict the use of union dues for political activity, Proposition 32.
FPPC officials went to the California Supreme Court to force disclosure of the source of the money, and on Sunday, in a 7-0 vote, the court ordered Americans for Responsible Leadership an hour to identify its donors.
As it turns out, the money contributed to ARL came from another pair of shadowy groups -- Americans for Job Security, a 501(c)(6) business group with a mailing address in Alexandria, Va., and the Center to Protect Patient Rights, a 501(c)(4) based in Phoenix. Ann Ravel, chair of the FPPC, correctly described the donations as "money laundering," suggesting that Americans for Responsible Leadership could face criminal sanctions.
Which groups or individuals are the ultimate source of the funding? The obvious answer seems to be Charles and David H. Koch, oil billionaires that have ties to both groups that provided the $11 million to Americans for Responsible Leadership.
So far, conservative groups such as the Koch brothers have been the most brazen in exploiting court rulings and lax enforcement to shovel mystery money into the political process. But that could easily change in the next election cycle. It will only be a matter of time before all sides of the political spectrum start laundering their contributions. Without more transparency, you might even see foreign donors, such as a Hugo Chavez or a Mexican drug cartel, attempting to swing an election.
The Internal Revenue Service has authority over 501(c)(4)s and other nonprofits. This federal agency needs to become a much more aggressive watchdog of groups that potentially are abusing their tax-exempt status. Until then, we applaud the FPPC for its action.