ProJo: Bill would shine light on sources of ‘dark money’

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Edward Fitzpatrick

It's common to see Common Cause Rhode Island prodding and criticizing state leaders as it pushes for more open and accountable government. And it's not common at all to see Common Cause executive director John M. Marion touting a bill at a State House news conference while flanked by the state's three most powerful officials.   

But that's exactly what happened the other day when Governor Chafee, House Speaker Gordon D. Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed stood behind a campaign finance disclosure bill, which was introduced in the legislature on Tuesday.

"It tells you they recognize the need to deal with this looming problem of 'dark money' in our elections by using their power to shine light on our system," Mari-on said. Introduced by Rep. Christopher R. Blazejewski, D-Providence, and Sen. Juan M. Pichardo, D-Providence, the bill "would require greater disclosure of the sources of money trying to influence our elections," Marion said.   

The legislation is needed because the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling "unleashed money in our elections in a way that people didn't expect," he said. "The court thought people would start spending money by themselves or through organizations that were transparent. But what has really happened is, through a series of subsequent court decisions relying on Citizens United, we have seen the emergence of super-PACs, and some of the underlying donors and donor organizations have been able to hide their spending."   

Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert illustrated the problem by creating a 501(c)(4) organization (named "Anonymous Shell Corporation") that lets him funnel donations anonymously into his super-PAC. He's lampooning a super-PAC and a 501(c)(4) set up by Karl Rove.   

Rhode Island has not yet seen super-PACs and tax-exempt groups trying to sway elections or referenda with big "independent expenditures," which in theory are not coordinated with candidates, Blazejewski said. "But it's inevitably going to happen," he said, noting the key court rulings are recent and the fall ballot contains a casino referendum. "It's a good idea to do this now before super-PACs have an interest in preventing the passage of disclosure legislation."   

The bill would not address the type of issue-advocacy undertaken by EngageRI, a 501(c)(4) that pushed for last year's state pension overhaul without disclosing donors. And existing law sets requirements for PACs that fund candidates directly. (EngageRI now has a PAC). But the bill does target the burgeoning area of "independent expenditures" and "electioneering communications," requiring that outside groups file reports more rapidly and disclose their top donors.   

"Anyone concerned about having a healthy democracy needs to get on board with ensuring that independent expenditures are disclosed to the public," Blazejewski said. "Knowing who is responsible for the advertising allows you to assess the reliability of the message and what interest the funders might have in the outcome they are seeking to promote."   

Chafee deserves credit for supporting greater disclosure (and not just talking about corruption). Fox and Paiva Weed deserve credit for joining Common Cause in backing a common sense bill. 

efitzpat@providencejournal.com     (401) 277-7368