CON We live in the Ground Zero of dark money. Does that bother anyone?

It was almost five years ago when Justice Anthony Kennedy declared a path to progress, writing in the Citizens United decision that the First Amendment assured corporate citizens’ right to apply unlimited money to politics, but transparency would allow voters to understand their messages “in a proper way.”

That seems a little naïve, doesn’t it? Corporations exist to protect human citizens from the consequences when corporate citizenship goes bad.

And things aren’t working in accordance with Kennedy’s vision. Now we get a bunch of messages from the Committee for God and Country and we’re not supposed to ask, who is riding in that wooden horse?

It’s one of the sad ironies of history that gave us the Citizens United decision. The untimely retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor deprived the Court of something very important: a member with actual experience in the most political branch of government. She had been majority leader of the Arizona Senate. Her experience gave her an appreciation for sunshine much like that of Louis Brandeis. Her replacement, Samuel Alito, came to the Court with an outlook like that of Chief Justice John Roberts, forged in the crucible of Ed Meese’s movement conservative Justice Department of the 1980s.

Once, a lot of Republican leaders recognized the critical role of transparency in politics. Look at the testimony of Fred Thompson, Alan Simpson, Warren Rudman and John McCain in McConnell v. FEC. Even Mitch McConnell used to say, “Let everybody spend what they want and just make them disclose it.”

Remember those days?

Well, so what? We wouldn’t want plutocrats engaged in social engineering to experience business consequences for their political activity, would we?

Actually, some of us would. What other recourse do humans have? Surrender democracy to the will of the self-serving wealthy and their corporate machinery? Look how well that’s working for the distribution of income and wealth.

Transparency in politics is not just about knowing who is reaching for power. Money is given in politics for considerations. Transparency is how we recognize when those considerations have crossed the line of the unethical or the illegal. Transparency is our inoculation against corruption.

If you think we need less transparency, not more, look at what happened in the lame duck legislature. You think careers aren’t being made by selling out the public interest? Secrecy, reciprocity and personal gain are perfectly acceptable business ethics but they leave a lot to be desired as public ethics.

There is one area where the secrecy of money in politics really deserves the label of ‘dark money.’ That area is the justice system. Justice, after all, is not supposed to be about considerations. Justice is about equality under law.

Justice is the area where Michigan gets its crappiest marks for transparency of political spending. Election in, election out, our Supreme Court campaigns have the highest percentage of unreported giving and spending of all campaigns. It’s been that way this entire century. It’s an area where Michigan leads the nation.

Think what that means. Who has the greatest incentive to want a judge who will render a parochial version of predictable jurisprudence? The corporate citizen with the high-stakes appeal in the pipeline, that’s who.

The giving is fine, I guess. Those are the standards we live with today. But the judging of a major donor has to be unacceptable. Imagine litigating in opposition to the judge’s major donor. SCOTUS didn’t give us a bright line, but they did say that judging your financial patron is unacceptable. So, what we don’t know about the secret funders of judicial campaigns does hurt us.

And now the dark-money cloud has enveloped the political campaign of our top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Bill Schuette. Most of the ads you saw about Schuette this fall were run through a dark-money machine called Michigan Advocacy Trust.

The pressure and opportunities presented to state attorneys general has been the subject of two recent articles in the New York Times. Frankly, it looks as though some corporate citizens are looking for some friendly applications of prosecutorial discretion. And they can help a considerate prosecutor with that political career and some serious lifestyle weekends.

And where does that leave the rest of us vis-a-vis the justice system?

I sometimes hear it said that transparency in politics will lead to intimidation. You know, Charles Koch as a modern Medgar Evers, needing the protection of NAACP v. Alabama. Imagine this heartrending scene: David Koch is ambling down the aisle at Walmart and some crazy liberal pukes on his shoes. What could Mr. Koch do? Call a cop?

I’ve also heard that freedom to launder money into politics is channeling the Founding Fathers. I don’t think so. Those anonymous donors who dumped millions into the Michigan Republican Party and the Michigan Advocacy Trust to pay for ads touting Viviano, Zahra and Schuette are not the successors of Thomas Paine – and there aren’t any redcoats coming to take them away.

I think of Michigan as the Dark Money Capital of American politics. I don’t mean that in a complimentary way. As Justice Antonin Scalia said, if people won’t publicly own their political acts, democracy is doomed.

And that’s why plutocrats love their dark money.

PRO "Dark money" is a euphemism for free speech, like it or not

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Comments

Gus
Mon, 12/22/2014 - 1:51pm
What a load of garbage. No logical or rational arguments against dark money, just a bunch of (misguided) opinion and innuendo. And of course the Koch brothers just had to mentioned, but George Soros was not. 'Dark money' is not the problem in politics -- lying, half truths, and innuendo are a much bigger problem.
Chuck
Mon, 12/22/2014 - 8:06pm
Money in politics is the problem. You, sir, are delusional.
Gus
Tue, 12/23/2014 - 3:11pm
As they say, money is the root of all evil, and it is also the life blood of politics. But it is absolutely naïve to think that 'dark money' is some kind of modern phenomena or that elections will be 'fairer' if corporations are not allowed to run ads supporting the candidate of their choice. The NEA is a corporation just as the NRA is. To grant one kind of corporation the right to run ads but not another is just an attempt to win elections by fixing the rules.
Dave
Tue, 12/23/2014 - 1:19am
No logical arguments against dark money. Maybe you need to go back and read the article again.
Duane
Tue, 12/23/2014 - 11:17pm
Dave, I see where Mr. Robinson belittles the US Supreme Court, where he belittles the people who work in private corporations, where he feels no judge has any ethics when it comes to a campaign donors, I get the impression that he feels AG Schutte has no independent thoughts from what those campaign donors given him or that he has no ethics because of campaign ads, but I read examples of how that prevented voters from casting a ballot of their choice. I wonder why with all of Mr. Robinson's concerns about a lack of transparency he focuses on Charles Koch. It would seem Mr. Koch's campaign activities are very visible to the point of his being a target of campaign ads. Can you help me understand how a visible campaign spender is a justification for complaining about a lack of transparency? As best I can tell Mr. Robinson doesn't like the fact that Mr. Koch can spend his money on campaigns, but I thought the point of the article was about not knowing who was spending money. You say we should reread the article, accepting the limits to my abilities, would you quote where Mr. Robinson explains how my vote is affect by not knowing who paid for a campaign ad? I read a lot of conjecture, it is too bad he did offer an example or two to help me understand the issue.
Duane
Tue, 12/23/2014 - 10:30pm
With all that Mr. Robinson has written I am still not clear on how not knowing who is paying for campaign ads is harming the voting process. We know where the money is spent, we see it every day. We even hear how campaigns with much less funding win. We know that the Koch brothers spend a lot on campaigns, we know they are attacked in campaign ads, they are demonized on the floor of the US Senate by the most powerful Senator. That makes me wonder what might that do to politics/campaigns in my community if a neighbor didn’t like that a person donating to a particular campaign. Someone please help me understand if the money is being spent legally, how it is being spent is public, and the voters still get to decide how they vote (in private) how not knowing whose money is being spent harms our voting process.
Fred
Wed, 12/24/2014 - 8:47am
When Rich Robinson's organization starts disclosing its donors, I'll start taking seriously his call for everyone else to disclose their donors. That he refuses to disclose who funds his work makes this entire column ridiculous and laughable.
Frances
Thu, 12/25/2014 - 11:13pm
Duane, These corporations go to a lot of trouble to hide the actual source of the money. That is why it is known as dark money. They run it through a PAC with a patriotic name, which is connected to a company with a industrial sounding name (XYZ Industries) but which doesn't really produce anything, which leads back to a foreign-based corporation, which is a subsidiary of another corporation that is a subsidiary of the Koch Brothers or some other giant conglomerate. All because they don't want the voters to know where the money is coming from. If their intentions are honest, why hide it?
Duane
Fri, 12/26/2014 - 3:18pm
Frances, I can understand that the donors don't want to be known. What I would like to learn is what is the reason we need to know. What harm to our voting process is don;t by not knowing who is spending on the campaigns. You mention Koch, I had seen one or two commercials making a point of their campaign spending (an example of how being knows can do harm to the donor). We know about the Koch campaign spending so how are they an example of lack of transparency? Does it matter who is supporting a message or is the message we should be interested. As an example, Stalin wasa promoter of 'communism' and yet many people believe in 'commmunism', should people who ignore the idea of 'communism' simply because Stalin supported it? Similarly we could talk about capitalism, democracy, etc., should we decide on those ideas simply because we like or dislike who supports them? As I recall in the 1990s there was campaign funding from abroad that filterd into Presidential elections, and the candidate they support was elected and reelected. Should the public have voted against the candidate simply because of who's money was spent on the campaign? Do you think it would have matter to the voters?
RJ Godin
Tue, 01/06/2015 - 3:02pm
Whilst it simple and convenient to focus on Koch brother, Soros, Adelson, et. al. there is rarely any discussion of the influence of foreign nationals and foreign interests in corporate campaign funding. You might not have an issue with Koch brothers buying political favor and policy - but what about Carlos Slim or Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud? Is there any concern about these non-American investors funneling huge sums to buy political influence and policy through the corporations that provide the dark cover for them? The simplistic position that "corporations are people my friend" overlooks that corporate "people" do not pledge allegiance to the flag, raise their kids to play baseball, eat apple pie or drive Chevrolets.