Republicans Pretend to Fight Dark Money

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) continues to tackle the mounting problems caused by a never-ending influx of dark money fueled by political agendas. He published an editorial in January, explaining the impending constitutional crisis posed by dark money groups, specifically involving the ability of conservative organizations to influence the judicial nomination process.

Whitehouse detailed the increased unethical influence that conservative organizations have bought to maintain a chokehold over the judicial nomination process since the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United opened the dark money floodgates in 2010. The controversial decision reversed century-old campaign finance restrictions and enabled corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections.

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David Koch, half of the billionaire team that was Koch Brothers, used his vast wealth to influence political spending and to force his libertarian-conservative ideology on the nation. The Koch network, which includes such groups as Americans for Prosperity, moved to force its extremist values off the assembly lines of their own factories, and onto the American collective.

David Koch, often heralded as the modern-day savior of the Republican Party, infused the GOP with nearly half a billion dollars to resuscitate the conservative movement, after their devastating losses at the executive and congressional levels in 2008. The result was the Tea Party movement, and the full repercussions of unlimited dark money in our federal court system are in plain view now.

“Dark money” can be an elusive term, but it ultimately refers to money that is spent to influence political outcomes where the source of the money is not disclosed. This process of using dark money to influence elections typically happens in two ways. First, politically active groups utilize a nonprofit 501(c)(4) status, which does not require them to disclose donors, and they also keep their backers’ identities a secret. Another way to engage in dark money operations can be the use of shell companies, that house and distribute bulk funding that can go to political entities or other non-opaque non-profit structures, so that money cannot be traced back to an original donor.

Since the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court ruling that gave rise to politically active nonprofits, these dark money groups have spent roughly $1 billion on methods meant to influence voters, mainly television and online ads and mailers. By concealing the sources of the covert funding that pays for these legal political “hit-jobs,” the electorate is bombarded with misleading political messaging that protects the true motives of corporations and the wealthy who are willing to pay for influence.

(Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse speaks during a Senate Judiciary Hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Oct 13, 2020.)

In his editorial, Whitehouse refers to this process as “the dark money ‘tsunami of slime’ sloshing through our politics,” and alleges that powerful special interests groups have spent hundreds of millions of dollars getting conservative judges confirmed to the bench, to push their anti-regulatory agenda within courts.

In a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the issue of dark money last week, Senator Whitehouse stated: “It appears that the last three Supreme Court justices and many appeals court justices were ushered onto the bench through this [dark money] operation.” Republicans correctly pointed out at this hearing that dark money groups have influence on both sides, and Democrats have also spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the last several years trying to influence campaigns and policy, as well.

While groups on all sides are guilty of utilizing the tactics supported by the Citizens United ruling, dark money is being used by Democrats to play defense to the ongoing barrage of political attack campaigns waged by the Republican Party. It’s also important to note that while Democrats are using dark money, they are doing so to ultimately get rid of it. Republicans are committed to fighting all opposition to the scheme that has served them so well in the past decade — Democrats want dark money gone across the board.

For example, Americans for Public Trust, a conservative nonprofit that claims it is “dedicated to restoring trust in government by holding the powerful accountable,” has just issued a new ad-buy attacking Sen. Whitehouse for “hypocrisy on dark money.” Americans for Public Trust is a dark money group, funded by anonymous donors who receive tax breaks for their contributions, and they are now bashing Whitehouse over his supposed hypocrisy regarding dark money…which allows them to exist.

“Sheldon Whitehouse has a dirty little secret,” says the APT ad, which is currently running in the Washington, DC, market. “He relentlessly attacks dark money, harping on its supposed evils. But at the same time, he’s backed by liberal dark money. A lot of it. A whole lot of it. Millions of dollars worth. In fact, liberal dark money groups are his biggest allies.” As the narrator speaks, another voice whispers in the background “Hypocrite” and “What’s he hiding?” while dramatic music plays in the background. You can watch the ad here:

What the ad doesn’t specify is that Americans for Public Trust was only founded in 2019 and it doesn’t disclose any of its donors. Former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R-NV), who was willing to assist Donald Trump in his false election interference claims by filing a federal lawsuit seeking to stop the vote count in Nevada, serves as outside counsel for the group. 

Americans for Public Trust. has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, often in coordination with the Judicial Crisis Network to attack President Joe Biden over his cabinet nominees, including Vanita Gupta and Xavier Becerra. The ad uses dark money to slam Democrats over the issue of using dark money.

Caitlin Sutherland, a former research director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, is the executive director for Americans for Public Trust and has recently defended the attack ad against Whitehouse. As a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) (thank you Citizens United),  we support the privacy rights of organizations who want to get involved in public policy without the threat of harassment or intimidation,” Sutherland said. Sutherland delved deeper into the hypocrisy of her statement: “The purpose of our six figure ad campaign is to shine a light on Senator Whitehouse’s hypocrisy on dark money, when he himself benefits from it.”

Right back at you, minus the six figures, Ms. Sutherland.

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Amee Vanderpool writes the SHERO Newsletter and is an attorney, published author, contributor to newspapers and magazines and analyst for BBC radio. She can be reached at avanderpool@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @girlsreallyrule.

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